December 24, 2008


A New Era of Hope for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

By Ali Noorani

Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff claimed credit for “reversing” illegal immigration, but the credit should more accurately fall to those in the Bush Administration who let the economy and our financial regulatory agencies collapse during the President’s tenure. As we have often said, the best way to slow immigration to the United States is to dry up all the pesky economic opportunity that has run rampant in this country for so long. The Bush Administration is well on its way to making sure there is no excess opportunity or economic security milling about. But we’re sure that President Bush, had he watched Secretary Chertoff’s press conference, would shout a hardy “Heck of a job, Cherty!”

True, massive investments in border barriers, increases in detention bed space, and a huge expansion in Homeland Security personnel have put more enforcement resources on display. However, to say that these resources have contributed significantly to a decrease in legal or illegal immigration – a phenomenon we have observed since the economy began slowing in 2001 – is like saying there is less rain because people buy umbrellas. Despite conspicuous and record-setting immigration raids, new strategies to streamline the deportation of immigrant workers with minimal judicial oversight, and continued bureaucratic barriers to legal immigration, the Chertoff claim to making significant progress in controlling legal or illegal immigration stretches the definition of causality.

Regardless of the Secretary’s claims and the hard work of our nation’s dedicated Homeland Security workforce, the Department has seen more than its share of controversy. In the past year, we have seen front page exposés on the Department’s failure to provide basic medical care to immigrants in detention, an unacceptable rate of immigrants dying in DHS custody, and, as reported in the Washington Post last week, a failure to process and swear-in new citizens hoping to vote in November’s election. These seem to be basic functions we would expect our government to execute.

Typical of the Bush Legacy

Having come into office with such promise for reform, the Bush Administration will be remembered for the massive raids, squalid detention conditions, indifferent bureaucracy, families kept apart, serious erosion of due process of law, and missed opportunities when it comes to immigrants and immigration.

The rhetoric was often lofty, but the reality of the Administration’s approach to immigrant-related issues was at odds with its words. Racial profiling and nationality round-ups marked the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. An unwillingness to challenge nativist elements in the Republican Party prevented this President from making progress on reform. The result is that we have no real progress towards reform, states and localities are left to make up their own often contradictory and ineffective policies, and we are spending billions of dollars on a wall on the border that amounts to a monument to symbolism over substance. The U.S. is becoming a massive gated community rather than an engaged partner in international migration regulation.

Raids and Mayhem…but for What?

Once efforts at legislative reform failed, the Department unleashed unprecedented immigration raids that have sown fear in immigrant communities across the country for more than a year. Rather than going after employers or fixing the immigration system in any meaningful way, the Federal Government has gone after workers on the bottom rung of our economy and society. We continue this fantasy that enforcement alone will gain us control over immigration and reestablish the rule of law. Regardless of the number of people deported and families ripped apart – and the Bush Administration set records in this regard – we are kidding ourselves if we think this is making any real progress or making our nation safer.

Real reform will establish a system that rational immigrants and employers will choose to use, rather than circumvent. It will include a remedy for the hundreds of thousands of close family members seeking legal admission but who are caught in immigration backlogs. Real reform will mean taking the pressure off of the border so that scarce resources can be deployed to identify and counteract legitimate threats with less time wasted on interdicting economic migrants who will become productive workers and tax-payers, particularly if they are allowed to come with vetting and a visa, rather than in the dead of night with a smuggler.

Real reform will recognize that millions of immigrants are here illegally, working, paying taxes, and raising families and that we are not likely to – nor should we want to – get rid of most of them through deportation or through making their lives miserable. A large population of workers and families existing outside the system is unacceptable. We need to get these undocumented individuals in to the system so that they pay their fair share and have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. Only through a controlled legalization of those who meet certain criteria can we hope to isolate those few immigrants hiding under the radar that may wish to do us harm or take unfair advantage of our generosity.

Combining an enforceable immigration system with effective, targeted enforcement is the only way we can achieve an immigration system consistent with American values. We must reestablish the rule of law by fixing our immigration system and then enforcing the heck out of it. This is how we regain control, create an even playing field for all workers in the economy, and ensure that workers and employers who play by the rules will be rewarded rather than undercut.

The Winds of Change

President-elect Obama’s cabinet nominations reflect a desire to make significant progress on immigration reform. Nominating people like Sen. Hillary Clinton (Secretary of State), Eric Holder (Attorney General), Gov. Janet Napolitano (Secretary of Homeland Security), Gov. Bill Richardson (Secretary of Commerce), Sen. Ken Salazar (Secretary of Interior), Rep. Hilda Solis (Secretary of Labor), indicates he and his Administration are serious about working with Congress to deliver comprehensive immigration reform for the American people.

Three years ago at this time of year, the Republican-controlled House had just passed H.R. 4437, a bill that would have amounted to the most restrictive immigration legislation in generations and which sparked huge demonstrations nationwide. Two years ago, the first in the new era of workplace raids unfolded at jobsites just in time for the holiday season. This year has seen more raids, more separation of families, continued bureaucratic processing delays, and a legal immigration system unresponsive to the reality facing families, employers, and individuals.

But 2008 also saw an election where immigrant and Latino voters turned out to vote for change in record numbers. The tired politics of immigrant bashing once again failed to deliver for firebrand politicians. The New Year and the new Congress and Administration hold great promise for progress on immigration reform. Now it is up to people of conscience to hold our elected representatives accountable and demand immigration reform that benefits the American people, America’s economic and homeland security, and moves us towards a new era of recognizing that immigration is not a source of weakness for America, it is a sign of our strength.

Ali Noorani is Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, a non-partisan, non-profit advocacy organization in Washington.

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