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Perspectives: Immigration Policy Is An Issue of Morality

President Bush’s speech on immigration policy on Monday represents a major moment in the current debate. His position represents a compromise between those advocating for a strict enforcement-only approach (e.g., the Sensenbrenner bill passed by the House in December) and those open to providing a path toward citizenship for undocumented aliens (e.g., the McCain-Kennedy bill), in order to achieve what he really wants — a substantial guestworker program.

The rhetoric in his speech was priceless:

  • Immigrants have “strengthened our country in so many ways.”
  • “It is neither wise, nor realistic, to round up millions of people, many with deep roots in the United States, and send them across the border.”
  • “We cannot build a unified country by inciting people to anger, or playing on anyone’s fears, or exploiting the issue of immigration for political gain. We must always remember that real lives will be affected by our debates and decisions, and that every human being has dignity and value no matter what their citizenship papers say.”

However, to mollify the enforcement-only wing of the Republican Party like Reps. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., the President is willing to spend billions more at the border by adding 6,000 officers to the Border Patrol, increasing surveillance systems, building more fences, and deploying the National Guard for a year. The problem is that these ideas have been tried and haven’t worked; the result will be countless more unnecessary deaths.

Beginning in 1994, the Clinton administration implemented Operation Gatekeeper, a strategy of “control through deterrence” that involved constructing fences and militarizing the parts of the southern border that were the most easily traversed. Instead of deterring migrants, their entry choices were shifted to treacherous terrain — the deserts and mountains. The number of entries and apprehensions were not at all decreased, and the number of deaths due to dehydration and sunstroke in the summer or freezing in the winter dramatically surged. In 1994, fewer than 30 migrants died along the border; by 1998 the number was 147, in 2001, 387 deaths were counted, and this past fiscal year 451.

Motivations for continued migration call into question the likely effectiveness of the expansion of Operation Gatekeeper if the goal is to discourage border-crossers. Beyond the economic situation in Mexico, a socio-economic phenomenon is at play. The phenomenon is the long, historical travel patterns between Mexico and the United States, coupled with the interdependency of the two regions. Migration from Mexico is the manifestation of these economic problems and social phenomena. The militarization of the border does nothing to address these phenomena. Instead, it is killing individuals who are caught up in the phenomena, and we act immorally when we elect to continue them.

Other aspects of the legislative compromise that the Senate reached this past week also require some serious soul-searching. Anyone who used a false Social Security number would be ineligible for legalization. Minor infractions could lead to deportation of longtime lawful residents. Such lawful residents could be held indefinitely, overturning Supreme Court precedent. Judicial review would be further curtailed. And proposals to provide a second chance hearing for longtime lawful residents or to clear backlogs in legal immigration categories aren’t being seriously considered even though families are being torn apart. Are these the actions of a nation founded on principles of fairness and humanity? 

When it comes to immigration policy, it’s time we recognize that we are in this together. Let us welcome the migrant worker — documented or undocumented — into membership because we have recruited him here and benefited from his labor. Give the convicted alien criminal who has resided here since infancy a second chance to escape the inner-city environment he or she grew up in. Embrace the emotional and economic contributions that kinship immigrants bring with them to the country each day. Recognize that reaching out to and incorporating newcomers advances the national security. And welcome the newcomer into the civic life of our society, so that he or she too can more fully contribute to the community. This is how we continue to build our nation of immigrants. This is how it’s done, in a just, humane, intelligent and moral manner. This is how we fulfill our commitment to a policy of humanity.

Bill Ong Hing is a Professor of Law and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis

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