Monday, March 27, 2006

Yours Truly: Don't Criminalize Immigration

Immigration reform must balance freedom of opportunity with controlling our borders. It also must be predicated on the core American values of fairness and inclusiveness and not on our baser instincts, which lurk just beneath the surface in these frightening times.

Good intentions are responsible for the current mess.

As it has evolved, U.S. immigration policy is a reaction to the draconian Immigration Act of 1924, which reduced the number of visas and allocated them by national origin based on its proportion of the U.S. population. This system favored northern Europeans and discriminated against Asians. During the wave of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, national quotas were abolished. Equal opportunity and family reunification became top priorities, opening the door to much larger migration from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia, including political refugees.

At the heart of the 1924 “reforms” was good, old fashioned racism. That is no less true today, although the realities are somewhat different.

Today's racism is being fed by the social insecurity that many of us feel about the impact of a growing global economy on our lives at a time when we are increasingly dependent on immigrant labor to grow our crops, mow our lawns and care for our children – jobs most of us simply do not want to do.

I hasten to add that there are jobs many Americans do want to do that employers give to immigrants because they are cheap labor and a ready-made way to undercut higher wages. Meanwhile, immigrants suck up tens of billions of dollars in health care, education and welfare costs. In some states, they have driven the social infrastructure to the breaking point, although for every economist who says that immigrants receive more in services than they pay in taxes there is another who argues the reverse.

* * * * *

The U.S. has a very nasty habit of dealing with difficult issues by criminalizing the behavior of the core groups involved.

Exhibit A is the so-called War on Drugs, which pours billions of tax dollars into jailing marijuana smokers while giving short shrift to prevention and rehabilitation programs for cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin addicts.

Now comes a conservative Republican plan already approved in the House to lock up illegal aliens, priests and social workers, some for up to five years, in response to an immigration system that is clearly broken and needs fixing. That simply will make a bad problem must worse while not dealing with the underlying causes.

Here are reforms that could work:

* Limit overall immigration to family units. If dad emigrates to the U.S., enters legally and plays by the rules, mom and the kids are eligible to follow him.

* Get serious about issuing national identification cards. No card, no work. This is not Big Brother; it’s common sense. And combined with rigorous enforcement of existing labor laws would go a long way toward defusing the pressure on militarizing the Mexican border.

* Protect the most vulnerable economic sectors. They are being overwhelmed by low-wage immigrant workers. That must stop.

* Press Mexico and other Latin American countries to be part of the solution. This means that they must reform their own economies. With U.S. economic incentives and technical assistance, of course.

* Provide for continued immigration for humanitarian reasons. People who are persecuted in their home country must still be welcome in ours.

(Of all the reading I have done on the issue, I found the clearest delineation of where we’ve been, where we are and where we need to go at the Institute for Policy Studies and Interhemispheric Resource Center. Here’s a link to their take on the immigration reform debate.)

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