Forgotten Errands: Put Policy Before Politics to Reform American Immigration

Several months ago, I wrote an article discussing theoretical frameworks for immigration policy, discussing global utilitarianism and international labour markets in the context of globalisation and human rights. I attempted to avoid contentious applications of these theories in an effort to hold the attention of more conservative readers, and allow open-ended questions to marinate in the mind with a bit more ease. Even so, I managed to elicit a response from a commenter who suggested I was some sort of demonic profit of the ‘Dark Enlightenment’, and linked me to a blog post which identified minorities and women as fundamentally sub-human. So it goes.

Image courtesy of xomiele, © 2010, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of xomiele, © 2010, some rights reserved.

In light of the immigration reform bill about to be released from the bi-partisan ‘Gang of Eight’ senators, I concluded it was time to refer back to these questions and risk alienating you dear readers rather than offer my take on this ‘dark enlightenment’ of human rights through a sly, seemingly-benign manner of inception.

The agreement proposes a general path to citizenship which would allow employed undocumented labourers to obtain a work visa, and eligibility to apply for a green card after ten years of stable employment, given the payment of back taxes in addition to an initial fine.

All of this, however, is contingent upon establishing the security of the American border; a situation which will be achieved once specific, yet to be established, criteria have been met.

Immigrants who entered the United States after 2011 would not be eligible.

The agreement attempts to balance the agricultural business interests, which generally favour more visas and lower wages against humanitarian labour interests, which generally favour the opposite.

This is an agreement that portrays an illusion of progress to a less sceptical voter. The path seems fair, the fines helpful in the struggling American economy, border security sounds nice, and, after all, the proposal was agreed upon by BOTH Republicans and Democrats!

I will now identify the extent to which this is invalid.

American immigration in the contemporary context should not be a partisan issue. There is nothing inherently ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ about acknowledging the human rights and human worth of undocumented workers already contributing to the American economy by filling essential and understaffed positions in the American agricultural industry. The fact that this agreement is the product of both Democratic and Republican voices should have no impact on how we view the proposals. Republicans tend to forget that their beloved Ronald Reagan authorised the 1986 amnesty which provided over 3 million undocumented immigrants living in the US with citizenship, just as liberals refrain from discussing George W. Bush’s remarkably successful efforts of combatting AIDS in Africa. We often fixate on party lines and aggressive divisions, but human rights and immigration politics are NOT partisan issues.

Why, then, has Senator Marco Rubio so aggressively defended the proposal as ‘not an amnesty’? Is providing a legal pathway to complete citizenship for undocumented workers not, by definition, an amnesty? Is society so fixated on the buzzwords of party politics that Rubio is somehow immune to the constraints of the common dictionary?

Clearly the answer is yes.

Just examine the rhetoric employed in the immigration discourse. Is there really such a thing as an ‘illegal alien’? When was the last time you used the word illegal to describe a human not categorised as an undocumented immigrant? We might call a bank robber or a murderer a criminal, but to describe him/her as illegal would be idiomatically disjointed and incorrect in the English language. Legality is not a premise applicable to human existence. Migrants can be documented or undocumented, but to refer to a human as ‘illegal’ is to engage in the pejorative discourse spun by xenophobic anti-immigration groups.

Next, let’s evaluate the decision to have undocumented workers pay back taxes and an initial fine.  It may not be surprising to know that undocumented workers generally do not have the cash reserves to make such payments in a lump sum. Many migrant workers have fled worse economic conditions to earn less than minimum wage in the United States, and live below the poverty line while sending much their income in remittances to family living abroad. Many Mexican immigrants enter the United States illegally because they do not have the cash reserves required to apply for proper documentation. Given these fees and the economic status of many undocumented immigrants, this premise is likely to greatly hinder the success of the proposal.

This is a problem that will likely never be realised, however, as the plan could not go into effect until the American borders are secure. When will our borders ever really be secure? Have we not been actively attempting to secure them for decades now? Are we to expect issues of border crossing, drug trafficking, and gang violence to just work themselves out so that the ‘Gang of Eight’s’ plan can come to fruition?

The proposal itself will only raise standards for obtaining work visas and green cards in a legal manner, retarding the process of securing the border in the context of immigration. These standards also ignore the massive issues of human security, as many die in desperate attempts to enter the United States from its southern border.

The focus of American immigration reform should be assessing the structural issues that contribute to North American migration, such as flawed bureaucratic procedures and excessively high standards for visa applicants.

This, in itself, is admittedly a massive project; one which we perhaps cannot realistically expect to be carried out anytime soon by our representatives, as they engage in games of petty politics and presidential ambitions.

I believe it is not, however, too much to ask to eliminate the obvious contradictions in the current proposal. Let’s not allow the pathway to citizenship for 11 million employed human beings to begin only with the pot of gold at the end of the magical securitisation rainbow. Let’s not pretend that these 11 million people have the cash lying around to even register for the program when less than 2 out of 5 Americans have any emergency savings to fall back on, and the average American citizen is $2,200 in credit card debt. Let’s insist that the proposal include universal adoption of the Dream Act, which would allow children of undocumented immigrants who have attended American public schools to apply for a college education.

Finally, let’s try to acknowledge that immigrants in the United States are not the source of all evil. Xenophobia aside, Americans will not be harmed by allowing these 11 million workers to maybe, one day, follow this path towards citizenship. These workers have filled positions vital to the American economy; largely positions which fail to attract American applicants; and are, in fact, more likely than any American citizen to pay taxes on their income after work visas have been issued.

To those who insist that the United States cannot act to ‘reward’ those who have broken international rules; I give you a moment to evaluate your underlying premise about the United States government and adherence to international rules. If you wish you stand on this moral high ground, you will need quite a few moments to consider the overhaul of American foreign policy.

The proposal went before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the other 92 senators last week and could be brought to a vote as early as June. It is with a fervour of idealist hope and overwhelming cynicism that I anticipate these proceedings, and wish for the emphasis to remain on human beings rather than the political trifles that have too often bogged down this issue in the past.

One Reply to “Forgotten Errands: Put Policy Before Politics to Reform American Immigration”

  1. While I agree that the term illegal is inappropriate when referring to a person, they are clearly not a legal immigrant, hence an illegal immigrant. When they avail themselves of the benefits of being in this country (freedom to go about their daily lives without intervention or control by an entity or to avail themselves of the other services provided to our citizens, ie emergency room) they are generating costs that must be borne by others.

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