Thursday, June 10, 2010

What's this "immigration reform" all about?

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Last Sunday the PICO community organizing network hosted a regional rally for immigration reform at Mission High School in San Francisco. About 300 people from all over the Bay Area came together to push for reform.

After the rally, I went to dinner with some folks from my church. One of the priests from our parish had worked hard to build the rally and urged us to support reform. People were very willing -- but they worried that they didn't know what it was all about. What follows is an attempt to unpack some of the basics of the U.S. immigration mess for folks who know something needs to be done, but who haven't been so personally touched by this broken system as to have to try to figure it out.

The largest advocacy coalition working for a new law, an assemblage of religious congregations, civic groups, unions and policy networks, is called Reform Immigration for America. These are not radicals -- theirs is a minimum program that might be within the reach of the possible in the political context in Washington. These are their principles for a reformed immigration law:

The necessary components of reform include: (1) improving the economic situation of all workers in the United States; (2) legalizing the status of undocumented immigrants working and living in the United States; (3) reforming visa programs to keep families together, protecting workers’ rights, and ensuring that future immigration is regulated and controlled rather than illegal and chaotic; (4) implementing smart, effective enforcement measures targeted at the worst violators of immigration and labor laws; (5) prioritizing immigrant integration into our communities and country; and (6) respecting the due process rights of all in the United States.

Let's unpack those items:
  • 1) Improving the economic situation of all workers in the United States. U.S. workers fear that a flood of immigrants will drive down their wages. There are plenty of studies that show that immigrant workers provide a net benefit to the U.S. economy, but that isn't necessarily true for individuals who find themselves in competition with newcomers, particularly in certain jobs, such as construction. Concurrently with a new immigration law, government needs to work to keep unemployment as low as possible to enable everyone to contribute to the economic health of society. Government programs should help potential workers upgrade their skills and acquire more education to stay in the job market.
  • 2) Legalizing the status of undocumented immigrants working and living in the United States. There are some 12 million undocumented people in this country. Overwhelmingly, they came to work because they couldn't survive at home. Businesses here were happy to hire them: they work hard and they don't have many legal rights to complain about being squeezed. They are here; they are the main workers in many low wage sectors of the economy; they pay many taxes and rarely dare use social services. No matter how much resources the government throws into checkpoints and raids, these people can't all be deported. We need, not an amnesty, but a path to legalization whereby these people could pay fees, learn English and eventually earn legal status. These people are in limbo because the legal pathways to come here to work are so jammed up, so poorly administered, and so arbitrary, that they showed the initiative get here and worry about the red tape later. The ancestors of most U.S. citizens were people who did the same thing and we celebrate their gumption. But now that we're here, we sometimes want to bar the door against those who come later.
  • 3) Reforming visa programs to keep families together, protecting workers’ rights, and ensuring that future immigration is regulated and controlled rather than illegal and chaotic. It's sometimes forgotten that just about every "illegal" immigrant is someone who is a legal immigrant's auntie or son. Many undocumented parents have U.S.-citizen children; arbitrary immigration enforcement tears apart families. Meanwhile, politically influential businesses have persuaded Congress to create special sorts of visas that enable them to bring in workers they want -- but those workers' rights to remain or even change jobs are controlled by the employers. These special legal statuses create all sorts of inequities. There's also an immigration lottery that literally gives foreigners a chance to enter their names for a drawing to come in legally. Immigration law needs to be made simple, clear and fair; it currently is an irrational maze.
  • 4) Implementing smart, effective enforcement measures targeted at the worst violators of immigration and labor laws. Unscrupulous employers grossly exploit immigrants who do not have legal rights. Stories of abuses such as locking foreign workers in sub-standard housing, failing to pay promised wages, and even sexual trafficking of women who thought they came for legitimate jobs are far too common. Another common way immigrants are exploited is by shady characters who promise to act as legal advocates and charge huge fees for filling out basic forms, taking advantage the newcomers' weak command of English and U.S. procedures.
  • 5) Prioritizing immigrant integration into our communities and country. Last time the U.S. enacted a major immigration reform, in 1986, the federal government encouraged the creation of nonprofit organizations to teach English and citizenship. These programs are an investment in our democracy, by bringing newcomers into our society as full participants.
  • 6) Respecting the due process rights of all in the United States. One of the bad results of having a large immigrant population living outside the law is that some authorities will treat people they think may fall into that category in arbitrary and brutal ways. There are numerous instances of early morning raids, immigrants jailed without any legal process in privately run prisons, even citizens who "look" Mexican being deported without a chance to prove their legal status. A fair immigration law would restore due process to everyone in the United States.
Reform Immigration for America makes several other points in its principles that seem very right to me:
  • Reform needs to be comprehensive. You can't do one thing, like spend more money on the Border Patrol, but not do the other things and get the results we all want. Push at one part of the problem by itself and you just move people and money around, not create solutions.
  • Immigration reform requires thinking long term. As a society, we're not very good at that, but we have no choice. A lot of the human dislocation of which immigration problems are a symptom happens because the global economy is changing and people are responding in whatever way they think will keep their heads above water. We must invest in improving the education and skills of people who are already here as well as figure out how to use the skills and energy of immigrants; none of this is optional.
Though I have bounced these ideas off Reform Immigration for America's list of principles, the exposition here offers my opinions, not theirs.

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