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Category: Politics, Immigration

Immigration: Waiting for Leadership

| August 7, 2008

Once touted by conservatives as the number one wedge issue, immigration has slipped off the table in these 2008 presidential elections.  In part, this is because conservative candidates across the country lost when they tried to make immigrant-bashing a winning issue. (Witness the 2006 losing campaigns of Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and John Hostettler of Indiana, as examples.)

On the other hand, the truth is that America needs a good, honest, solutions-oriented discussion on bringing about just and humane immigration reform. That’s important for everyone, but particularly for women who are often disproportionately affected, working in meatpacking plants and the target of workplace raids or struggling to hold their families together in the face of deportation. The conversation needs leadership and that is what we as voters, and media professionals as our surrogates, should call for in our presidential candidates.

Both candidates have a track record on immigration, one more confusing than the other. Senator McCain actually authored a bi-partisan immigration reform bill with Senator Ted Kennedy.  Presidential candidate McCain said he wouldn’t have voted for his own bill if it had come to a vote. Senator Barack Obama has publicly supported the need for comprehensive immigration reform and stands by that, reiterating the need to have a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, to reunite families and to ensure rights for immigrant workers.

Last year in Congress, both senators voted to build a 700-mile border wall, which the Administration has also decided it can waive environmental and labor standards to build. Just a few months later, once in campaign mode, both candidates said the wall was ineffective.  Candidate McCain once more changed sides, announcing still later that while he still supported the need to fix immigration, he would first insist that border security measures be implemented before any reform of the system.

The border flip-flop exemplifies the problem we have on immigration in America and why we must demand leadership on the issue. The American people are ready—we are just waiting on the candidates.

In 2007, in a national poll conducted by Lake Research, an overwhelming 87 percent of Americans indicated they don’t support deportation of undocumented immigrants as a viable solution.  Rather, they want a “controlled immigration system to replace an illegal immigration flow.”

That makes much more sense.  Americans understand that we need solutions that reflect our American values—values of fairness, hard work and family unity. We need solutions that are grounded in those Constitutional protections of due process and that preserve America’s standing in the world as a place of refuge from war and persecution. We need solutions that reflect the reality that our current system is outdated with quotas for immigrant entry that don’t match our needs, and a bureaucracy that has no accountability to ensuring that even legal applications are processed in a timely fashion. We need solutions that look honestly, too, at the impact of globalization and free trade policies and how we can build the economies of poor countries around the world.

We also know a fair amount about immigration, what works and what doesn’t. We just need to apply that knowledge.

One thing we know is that border walls don’t work. A report released by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California looked at the impact of spending $20 billion on increased U.S.-Mexico border enforcement over an eight year period and determined that it had done “virtually nothing to decrease illegal immigration.”  In fact, many experts believe that building more walls serves only to keep undocumented immigrants in the United States longer, when they might otherwise leave to go home and cross only for seasonal work.

What we know about immigraton is that stopping immigration, as the restrictionists and nativists would like to do, would have enormous impact on both the U.S. economy and economies around the world.  In 2006, Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Mark Everson told Congress that undocumented immigrants paid roughly $90 billion in federal taxes from 1996 to 2003.  And in 2008, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that remmittances to five Latin American countries alone will reach $14 billion this year, funds that are critical for the development of stable economies worldwide that will ultimately be a key factor in reducing migration.

What we know about immigration is that detention of immigrants is the fastest growing form of incarceration in America, according to the New York Times.  A recent report my organization OneAmerica (formerly Hate Free Zone) released in Washington State on the Northwest Detention Center detailed abuses of human rights and constitutional protections for immigrants in detention—including refugees and asylees, documented and undocumented from all over the world. It tells the story of a pregnant detainee who was taken (late) to an emergency room for medical attention in handcuffs and shackles. It tells the story of a mentally ill detainee having a hood placed on him and being kicked and punched. And that of women detainees being thoroughly and humiliatingly strip searched after their attorney visits. These abuses are consistent with charges emerging from around the country and fundamentally inconsistent with American values.

What we know about immigration, too, is that the harsh enforcement policies of the current Administration are underminding the very foundations of America. Recent reports of a raid on a meatpacking facility in Postville, Iowa, has exposed this Administration’s flagrant violations of Constitutional rights, with federal officers forcing undocumented immigrants to sign papers they didn’t understand and leaving families cowering and terrified. Ironically, the real violators—like the owners of this company who employed children to work 17 hour days under horrible and dangerous conditions for slave wages—will continue with impunity within a broken system if America does not focus on reform.

Showing leadership on immigration means standing up to the small but vocal minority of nativist restrictionists. It means having the courage to declare that no human being is ‘illegal,’ because language matters. It means crafting a real solution that ensures we have a system that works, that reflects the needs of our economy, that values family unity, due process and human rights. It means speaking the truth about immigrants from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America who are all inexorably interwoven into every component of our communities, buying groceries, gas and clothes; working side by side with us behind counters, desks, gas pumps and factory lines; worshipping with us and struggling like us to pay their bills and take care of ailing parents or sick children.

It may not be easy—but showing leadership is what presidents are supposed to do and what Americans are hungry for.