U.S. immigration policy is based on denial. Most lawmakers in the United States have largely embraced the process of economic “globalization,” yet stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that increased migration, especially from developing nations to developed nations, is an integral and inevitable part of this process.
If you believe Bill Chase, a member of the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors from Stevensburg, Virginia, the Latino immigrants who have moved to the county in recent years aren’t as willing to learn English as his own immigrant forefathers. “I think we all came from foreign countries and turned into English-speaking Americans,” Chase told The Washington Post on August 9. Then, apparently without appreciating the irony, he added, “But I don’t feel a willingness of this particular group to do that. I don’t see the willingness to blend into society.”
Since 9/11 the watchword in the debate over immigration reform has been “security.” As a result, most policymakers and pundits now approach the subject of immigration largely from a law-enforcement perspective. However, the current border-enforcement strategy, which tends to lump together terrorists and undocumented jobseekers from abroad as groups to be kept out, ignores the causes of undocumented immigration and fuels the expansion of the people-smuggling networks through which a foreign terrorist might enter the country.
In recent years, there has been a great deal of controversy over the efforts of some banks to offer financial services to individuals without Social Security numbers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants. More and more banks now allow people to open checking and savings accounts and to apply for credit cards and home mortgages using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or an identification card issued by a foreign consulate in the United States. In February of 2007, for instance, Bank of America announced a pilot program in Los Angeles offering credit cards to individuals who lack either a social security number or a credit history, provided that they have ITINs.
For the undocumented in America there is little doubt that the iniquities of the father are visited upon the child. On November 7th, for instance, an astounding 71 percent of voters in Arizona passed a referendum (Proposition 300) which states that only U.S. citizens and legal residents are eligible for in-state college tuition rates, tuition and fee waivers, and financial assistance. These are kids brought by their parents to this country as young children, in many instances infants in their mothers’ arms, and in every instance as children for whom the decision to come here was made without their participation. And yet, they shall pay the price, perhaps with their futures. The same referendum would deny childcare to the U.S.-citizen children of undocumented parents. Yes, the child is a citizen of the United States, but voters in Arizona have concluded that to provide the child with care is to reward the parents for the sin of seeking a better life in America.
I do a daily radio talk show on Radio Campesina in Phoenix and, clearly, since the November elections callers are once more allowing themselves to dream of the day their hard, hidden existence comes to an end. Their dreams are tentative and cautious, but nonetheless hope has been resurrected. Yet in Arizona hope is interspersed with anger. Four anti-immigrant referendums passed overwhelmingly, one of which, Proposition 300, will impose steep tuition increases for undocumented community-college and university students. Most legal observers believe it is constitutional. The only resolution lies now in the hands of Congress. Delay in passing comprehensive immigration reform, or at the very least the DREAM Act (which would provide a path to lawful permanent residence for hundreds of thousands of undocumented high-school graduates), will have immediate and tragic consequences for thousands of Latino kids in Arizona.
Anyone who has been keeping close tabs on the immigration debate in Washington over the last five years can attest to the fact that it has all of the ingredients for the perfect political storm. For starters, U.S. immigration laws are so arcane that only a handful of legislators truly understand them. As a result, many policy makers search for simple, sound-bite driven solutions to problems that are far too complex for quick fixes. The complexity of the issue is made even more difficult by the fact that the immigration issue is not easily defined by party labels. Supporters and opponents of various immigration proposals come from both parties and span the political spectrum. This makes it difficult for party leaders to determine where, when, and how to discuss the issue. Finally, and perhaps most destructively, the topic of immigration evokes intense emotions that are easily stirred by politicians and pundits who play to the fears and insecurities of the electorate rather than deal with the issue honestly and pragmatically. It is the emotional nature of the debate that really has whipped the political winds into a fury over the last five years.
Access to an independent judiciary with the power to hold the government accountable in its dealings with individuals is a founding principle of the United States. In contrast, imagine a system where there is no access to independent judgment; where, instead, the referee works for the opposing team. The House of Representatives took a step away from this founding principle by passing the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (H.R. 4437) on December 16, 2005. A provision of the bill would erode access to independent judgment by severely restricting access to the federal courts for individuals in removal (deportation) proceedings. This provision is part of a long string of efforts by proponents of restrictive immigration policies to limit the jurisdiction of the federal courts over immigration cases.
The most striking thing about today’s immigration debate is how many times America has been here before—and how many times it has made the same mistakes. With respect to David Letterman, here is a list of the biggest errors that U.S. policymakers have made in designing immigration policy. As Congress wrestles to find the right mix of immigration enforcement and immigration reform, it should keep in mind what it has done wrong in the past so that it has a chance to get it right this time.
Benjamin Johnson, Director of the Immigration Policy Center, discusses the futility of an enforcement-only approach to immigration reform and the need for a more comprehensive strategy to deal with the problem of undocumented immigration. In this new "Perspective," he argues that immigration cannot be treated simply as a law-enforcement issue. Rather, the United States must begin managing immigration as a national resource.