by Walter Ewing
Unauthorized immigrants come to this country primarily for two reasons: to work, and to be reunited with family members who are already here. They would obviously prefer to come to this country legally, but our legal limits on immigration have for decades not matched either the realtties of U.S. labor demand or the natural human desire for family unity. And so they opt to make the expensive, difficult, and dangerous decision to come without authorization because that is what they judge to be the best chance they and their families have for a better future. In other words, the overwhelming majority of unauthorized immigrants are as far from being hardened criminals as you could possibly get. They are gardeners and housekeepers; husbands and wives; parents with children. They are members of U.S. society and integral to the U.S. economy. How much damage are we willing to inflict upon U.S. society and the U.S. economy in the process of expelling unauthorized landscapers and nannies from the country?
However, in its latest report, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) would have us believe that unauthorized immigrants are Public Enemy #1. The CIS report is basically a laundry list of every federal law which an unauthorized immigrant might break in coming to, living in, and working in the United States without authorization. Although the report is very thorough in its cataloging of statutes, it demonstrates a superficial understanding of criminality and how people—especially immigrants—come to be defined as “criminals.” Moreover, the report offers no practical, realistic guide to dealing with the presence of 11 million unauthorized men, women, and children. The chances are slim that they will all be deported in a modern-day redux of Operation Wetback. Nor are they likely to “self-deport.” Among the more serious flaws of the CIS report is its failure to recognize the degree to which immigrants in general and unauthorized immigrants in particular are actively criminalized by the U.S. justice system. That is, new categories of criminality are created which are applied only to immigrants, but not to the native-born. For instance, both unauthorized immigrants and Legal Permanent Residents are subject to mandatory deportation if they have been convicted of an “aggravated felony.”
However, under the 1996 immigration law, the crimes which qualify as an “aggravated felony” are different for an immigrant than they are for a native-born American. For an immigrant, an “aggravated felony” need not really be “aggravated” or even a “felony.” Instead, it includes many nonviolent and relatively minor offenses such as filing a false tax return or shoplifting—neither of which would be considered an “aggravated felony” for native-born citizens. Similarly, in the case of unauthorized immigrants, Congress has generally defined “illegal entry” into the country as a misdemeanor, but “illegal re-entry” (coming here again without authorization) as a felony. Yet neither of these offenses is violent or threatening. This is why nonviolent immigration offenders comprise the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants who are apprehended and deported each year. In fact, research has shown that those immigrants most likely to be unauthorized—Mexican, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan men without a high-school diploma—are incarcerated at far lower rates than native-born men. In other words, in the overwhelming majority of cases, these are not “criminals” in any commonly understood sense of the word.
They have not committed violent crimes or property crimes. And they are not threats to public safety or national security. Leaving aside the dubious definitions of “criminal” which are applied to unauthorized immigrants by federal law, some practical questions remain. How far should we go—how many scarce law-enforcement resources and personnel should we devote—to expelling unauthorized landscapers and nannies from the country? How much damage are we willing to inflict upon U.S. society and the U.S. economy in the process? And to what end? If you’re worried that the man who picks your vegetables or mows your lawn may have used a false Social Security number to get his job, the most realistic solution is the creation of a program by which he can earn legal status.
That is far more practical than trying to track him down, and his coworkers, and his family and friends, in a crusade to remove from the country any non-citizen who has ever broken any law.
In other immigration news:
Obama calls for Congress to pass immigration reform by end of year
President Barack Obama on Thursday called on lawmakers to pass a comprehensive immigration reform package before the end of the year after the task of resolving the fiscal crisis kept parts of the U.S. government shut down for 16 days and almost caused the country to default on its debts.
“There’s already a broad coalition across America that’s behind this effort of comprehensive immigration reform, from business leaders to faith leaders to law enforcement,” said the president.
Obama, who talked to reporters about the budget agreement reached Wednesday night in Congress, insisted that immigration reform is a measure that will help jump start the U.S. economy and that must be agreed to as soon as possible.
“In fact, the Senate has already passed a bill with strong bipartisan support that would make the biggest commitment to border security in our history, would modernize our legal immigration system, make sure everyone plays by the same rules,” he added.
Obama said the Senate measure, which would establish a road to citizenship for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants, would stimulate the economy.
“The majority of Americans think this is the right thing to do, and it’s sitting there waiting for the House to pass it,” the president said. “Now if the House has ideas on how to improve the Senate bill, let’s hear them. Let’s start the negotiations. But let’s not leave this problem to keep festering for another year, or two years, or three years.”
“This can and should get done by the end of this year,” Obama said.
Immigration reform was moved to the political back burner after, first, the Syrian crisis and, next, the fiscal crisis.