When talk of immigration reform got serious after the November general election, many in the immigrant rights community were excited about the prospects for broad legislation. With Latino and Asian American voters’ snubbing of Mitt Romney, notable Republicans voiced the political need for their party to get on the immigration reform bandwagon if they were to ever win another national election. President Obama made reform a top priority, and soon a bipartisan “gang of eight” in the Senate announced that they would work out a deal that would please both parties.
The problem is that with gangs’ deal-making hats on, the prospects for the type of reform that immigrant communities and their families deserve was doomed. Those who work and live in immigrant neighborhoods day-in, day-out know that the enforcement-focused DHS has wreaked havoc in immigrant communities under the Bush and Obama administrations. ICE raids, the secure communities deportation program, 287(g) agreements with local sheriffs’ offices, and employee record audits has resulted in record-setting detentions, deportations, job loss, and family separation. So what community workers and immigrants were seeking in reform was grounded in a human rights perspective that would recognize the contributions that immigrants—documented and undocumented—make to U.S. society. That perspective would recognize that immigrants come here to be with family or to feed their families. That perspective would have generated provisions that include generous waivers, the cessation of needless deportations and the militarization of border, as well as a fair and broad legalization. That perspective would have brought an end to the expansion of aggravated felons and instead would have implemented a restorative justice approach to the removal of immigrants convicted of crimes premised on a belief in rehabilitation and atonement.
The problem is that the Gang of Eight viewed themselves as negotiators, not as reformers. And as negotiators, human rights concerns were simply treated as background chatter that fell on deaf ears as the bargaining began. After all, if your mindset is about making a deal, then you are willing to give in on issues that strike at the heart of fairness and justice. So instead of reform from a human rights perspective, S. 744 contains these “bargained for” parts: a legalization provision with the stiff price of severe monetary panels and a path to citizenship that will take more than a dozen years; billions of dollars more to be spent on border militarization that will increase the number of deaths of innocent migrants pushed north by trade agreements that have dried up work back home; making E-verify mandatory, essentially nationalizing one of the only anti-immigrant provisions of Arizona’s anti-immigrant laws upheld by the Supreme Court; shifting certain relatives of green card holders to a more generous immediate relative visa category, but eliminating the sibling and older married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens categories; expanding “gang” deportation and inadmissibility provisions without any mention of second chance opportunities for those who are remorseful and rehabilitated.
Thus, S. 744 really contains little that is progressive. For example, the immigrant visa system today is anachronistic. Those who advocate for more high tech visas will attest to that fact. The country’s outdated immigration policy is incapable of dealing with 21st century immigration patterns and economic realities. No doubt current family immigration and employment categories can be better honed to meet the types of demands of U.S. individuals and employers. However, many families, employers, and individuals need greater flexibility today, given residence and travel needs. That means that flexibility in terms of visa entries and residence requirements should be built into our current system to accommodate those needs. Movement circularity for visa holders is a feature that may accommodate working class as well as wealthy individuals. S. 744’s so-called merit-based, point system does little to address those needs.
Our immigration enforcement regime is due for legislative reassessment as well. In the past few years, overzealous enforcement programs like the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Secure Communities program that has swept up victims of crimes, minor offenders, and even crime witnesses have received some attention. Similar concern has been raised by the racial profiling of Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians under the U.S. Patriot Act. However, little attention has been paid to the fact that ever since 1996, lawful immigrants and refugees who have committed an “aggravated felony” are deported without a chance to introduce evidence of rehabilitation, remorse, or hardship to citizen relatives. Part of the tragedy of these laws is that the term aggravated felony includes selling $10 worth of marijuana, “smuggling” a kid sister across the border, and even some crimes like theft, burglary, perjury, and obstruction of justice that a state court has classified as a misdemeanor. There’s a problem when spouses of citizens and parents of citizen children are deported as “aggravated felons” without giving an immigration judge the opportunity to decide whether the deportee deserves a second chance.
Immigration reform should include innovative thinking as well. Given the demographic changes that have been brought about by immigrant and refugee resettlement across the country, why not promote civic engagement efforts that serve to welcome newcomers? It makes sense to reach out to immigrants and refugees as soon as they arrive so that they too might understand the responsibilities of being an American. Although federal, state, and local governments should lead the way, just think of the amazing things that could be accomplished if other vital institutions were to follow the government’s lead and become involved: schools, daycare centers, local businesses, chambers of commerce, churches, recreation clubs, neighborhood groups, senior groups, and youth groups; they would bring rich possibilities to the enterprise.
The out-of-the box thinking on immigration reform may lead us to realize that the real solution to undocumented Mexican migration, for example, might be working more closely with our neighbor and consider making a greater effort to address Mexico’s unemployment and economic needs. The point is that the binary analysis of immigration reform that is classically about greater enforcement versus legalization should only be a start. Cooler, more thoughtful heads can come up with more peaceful, meaningful ideas than militarizing the border.
Some immigrant rights groups are celebrating the Senate’s passage of S. 744 as a monumental step in obtaining legalization for undocumented immigrants in the country—no matter how long it will take or how much it will cost for applicants to get citizenship. They and the liberal members of the Gang of Eight have said that it’s the best deal we could attain under the political circumstances. That’s sad, because immigration reform shouldn’t be about deal making. Immigration reform should be about doing the right thing for immigrants who have done so much for the United States.