There is growing agreement that the immigration system in the United States is a moral, humanitarian and economic disaster. While I welcome the attention Congress, President Obama and the media are finally giving to immigration reform, I cannot seem to shake my growing feeling of uneasiness and overall concern about the process and where it is headed. There are too many warning signs to ignore, and although many immigrants and their allies (especially on the grassroots level) have been vocal in their support of broad, meaningful, humane and just reform, far too many of our elected officials do not seem to share the same expansive and inclusive goals. Unless we can persuade them by speaking up and fighting back – immediately – I fear that we’ll be stuck with a legislative package that leaves far too many deserving people without relief, and possibly even makes things worse (hard as that is to imagine).
With that in mind, here is a list of some of the most pressing questions on my mind as Immigration Reform, Version 2013 heats up. Of course this list is not exhaustive, and many of the answers are obvious. But I do believe there is value in the asking. So here they are:
- Can’t people who claim to support “tough but fair” immigration reform realize just how tough, punishing and oppressive everyday life already is for undocumented migrants in the US, not to mention their families?
- Doesn’t every news story on immigration center the stories and voices of immigrants themselves – and especially those without legal status?
- Do so many US citizen advocates and allies forget that this is not *our* movement, and that it is up to those suffering through the daily terror caused by our immigration system to determine the path to their liberation. Shouldn’t our role be to support those directly impacted by our out of control immigration system in whatever way they would like, and not to lead them or tell them what to do/think/support/oppose?
- Does the starting point for Immigration Reform 2013 seem to be the failed and deeply flawed bills of the past several years, rather than something new, fresh and bold?
- Are very few immigrants – and especially undocumented migrants – invited into the back rooms when legislation is being discussed and drafted?
- Are many of the same elected officials who have failed over and over again to improve the immigration system once again in charge of reform?
- Can’t we cap the number of congressional failures an elected official can have before they lose the right to lead future efforts in the same area?
- Is Congress debating proposals that could leave millions out in the cold, and might even lead to increased incarceration and deportation?
- Isn’t the study showing that the government spends more money on immigration enforcement than on every other federal law enforcement agency combined posted on the doors of every elected official who thinks we are not doing enough to enforce the immigration laws?
- Can’t we figure out a creative way to deal with politicians lobbying for even more enforcement funding and refusing to support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants? Clearly they are not moved by such inconveniences as facts or statistics. Maybe we need a handful of people to follow them around reading the names of every person deported and everyone they had to leave behind?
- Do elected officials think it is necessary or acceptable to invest even one additional dollar on immigration enforcement, when we should be completely overhauling the enforcement regime by drastically reducing funding and resources (mainly for humanitarian but also for economic reasons) and limiting the ways the government can detain and deport immigrants?
- Do Democrats seem to care more about bipartisanship and not upsetting Republicans than about truly fighting for the people they claim to want to help?
- Isn’t everything on the table — starting with repealing the horribly unjust 1996 laws that increased the severity of punishments while creating new ones altogether, expanded the definition of immigration crimes, required countless non-violent offenders to be locked up without bail, prevented judges from considering an immigrant’s family, work and community ties, and set in motion the mass deportations (and accompanying terror and trauma) that continue to this day?
- Is amnesty such a toxic word and completely off limits in the debate over immigration reform? If it was good enough for Ronald Reagan, doesn’t it at least deserve to be debated on its merits? Same with open borders. They may be extreme in today’s political environment, but surely no more extreme than deporting record numbers of people year after year.
- Is the fate of millions of people born outside the US – most of whom are young, not wealthy and of color – decided by mostly old, wealthy, white men who are far removed from the consequences of their actions?
- Is it so hard for me to picture most elected officials really thinking about what it is like for a child to cry herself to sleep because her dad was deported, or for spouses to say goodbye in the morning without knowing if their partner will return in the evening, or how someone enduring backbreaking labor for the benefit of others feels when the boss refuses to pay him what he has earned?
- Aren’t immigrants – especially undocumented migrants – invited to testify at every congressional hearing on immigration reform? It shouldn’t have to take an act of civil disobedience for their voices to be heard.
- Is it acceptable for immigrants – undocumented as well as permanent residents (green card holders) – to be punished twice for a crime: once through the criminal justice system and then after they have completed that punishment, by continued immigration detention and deportation?
- Do we allow the government to lock up and deport thousands of green card holders every year for minor offenses they committed in the distant past and for which they long ago completed their punishment?
- Don’t more people outside of the communities directly impacted know that the government’s enforcement criteria for “priority” cases and definitions for “criminal” immigrants are so broad that nearly every immigrant can get caught in such a wide net?
- Should an immigrant’s criminal record be the most important factor in determining whether they should benefit from future reform, especially in light of the how the criminal justice system overwhelmingly discriminates against people of color and the poor? Instead, shouldn’t the main (and possibly only) factor be whether they are a serious public safety threat right now?
- Does there seem to be more of an emphasis (especially in the media) of the effects of parental deportation on a US citizen child? If we agree that protecting children from senseless suffering is a worthy goal, why should it matter where that child was born? Every time the government deports a parent, a family is broken and a child is traumatized, regardless of whether that child is a citizen of the US or some other country.
- Can’t I get the quote “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” out of my head? How does our government not see that there are countless better ways of dealing with problems and challenges?
- Is mainstream media so hesitant to connect (or incapable of connecting) the exploitation, suffering and oppression of migrants with ongoing structural and institutional racism and similar forms of violence in the US?
- Won’t journalists ask elected officials if the reason they are setting seemingly unreachable immigration enforcement goals is because they have no intention of actually doing what they claim to want to do, namely help the vast number of people who are suffering?
- Do our elected officials, with the help of mainstream media, continue to avoid any discussion of the root causes of migration – poverty, war, political instability, environmental destruction, etc. – and especially any inquiry into how US trade, foreign, military and environmental policy causes or contributes to the destabilizing of countries throughout the world?
- Does anyone think that changing immigration laws without changing how the US – through its government, military and businesses – interacts with other countries will lead to a sustainable and just outcome either here or abroad?
- Doesn’t Congress hold hearings on all the ways the US can redirect foreign aid to ensure that it helps create the type of local opportunities that will allow would-be migrants to lead meaningful lives in their home countries and not feel the desperate need to leave?
- Can’t we also talk about serious and long overdue reforms to the criminal justice system so that immigrants, people of color and the poor are no longer discriminated against through racial profiling and similar police initiatives, unequal prosecution, disparate sentencing and more? While we’re at it, why can’t we just start over and create both a new criminal justice system and an immigration system that is based on fairness, justice and equality under the law?
- Are private prison corporations and the politicians they fund the ones who benefit the most from the unjust status quo?
- Do far too many elected officials and members of the media insist on using the “I——” word, when it is morally reprehensible and factually inaccurate?
- Is there still such a significant gap between President Obama’s words and deeds when it comes to immigration? He speaks openly about the urgent need for reform, including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and recognizes the “heartbreaking” consequences of deportation. Yet he refuses to halt or even slow the record pace of deportations that will undoubtedly lead to more suffering among those he says he is committed to helping.
- Is it that the people who passed and enforced the laws that have led to a human rights crisis of epic proportions in the US now hold the key to legislative and political reform, and that nothing good on a large scale will happen without them?
- Can’t we have publicly financed elections already, so that our representatives can truly represent all of us, and not just the ones who believe in a hyper focus on enforcement, the continued criminalization of immigrants, and the division of immigrants into good (highly educated, entered at a young age, no criminal record) and bad (those with criminal records)?
- Do our far too many of our elected leaders – from President Obama to Congress to state governments – continue to refuse to acknowledge, let alone apologize for and take immediate steps to end, the devastation they have caused – and continue to cause through their immigration laws and policies?
- And finally, why, in spite of all of this, do I feel even moderately hopeful that “Comprehensive Immigration Reform 2013” will lead to justice for immigrants? This one I’ll answer, since it just may be the most important question of all: It’s because of the courage, tenacity, organizational smarts, creativity and wisdom of immigrant leaders – especially undocumented youth. They understand (far better than their citizen “allies”, yours truly included) the urgency of the moment, and how to use an inside-outside combination of political lobbying, direct action/civil disobedience, community organizing, public education and social media to win the change they demand. They continue to pave the way forward, and if we truly want to see sensible, humane and just immigration reform come to pass, it is up to everyone who claims to support immigrant rights to figure out how we can support their efforts.
Written by Michael Mandel, AILA Media Advocacy Committee Member