Facts not Fear: Re-thinking the Immigration “Problem”

Two weeks ago, NBC 7/39 San Diego interviewed me for a segment they were running on the Judge Bolton’s decision to put a hold on the most controversial pieces of the Arizona’s SB1040 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8k7raR4M8IY). During the course of the interview (most of which was left on the cutting room floor), the reporter says, “clearly, there’s an immigration problem and reform is called for.  What reforms do you think should go in place and how do we do it?”  Talk about a loaded question.

I’ve let this question roll around in my mind –wondering how I could elaborate on what was my rather straight forward, media byte answer to the question. My answer then was, “I want us to lead with facts not fear.”  When I explained, I said that “the reality about immigration policy today is that public perception does not align with the realities of what’s happening at the US/Mexico border”.  At length (translation: not in media friendly clips) I explained at length that during the Obama Administration we’ve witnessed greater numbers of detentions and deportations then the Bush Administration[i]. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University,

“Just released figures from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), however, show that during the first nine months of FY 2010, 279,035 non-U.S. citizens were removed* from the country as a result of ICE enforcement. This number is ten (10) percent more than the same period during FY 2008 — the last fiscal year of the Bush administration. This represents almost a doubling of the rate of removals that have taken place during the past five years (http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/234/).

In fact, according to statistics provided by Homeland Security, estimates show that there are far fewer undocumented immigrants in the United States now then pre- 9/11[ii] In addition, immigrants are witnessing prolonged waits to become legal permanent residents and naturalized citizens. In a memo dated, August 20th 2010, ICE Director John Morton noted, that currently“17,000 illegal immigrants who are detained have pending applications for legal status with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, ICE’s sister agency within the Department of Homeland Security.“ It is unclear whether or not these individuals will be deported.  Clearly, these issues are complex.   Faced with dire economic situations in their home countries that caused in no small part by the United States and the signing of unbalanced Fair Trade bills, most individuals must do whatever it takes to keep their family healthy and alive.   Part of the ‘problem’ is that our immigration system does not provide a timely legal option for immigration.

 I realize now that the reasons I have not been able to let go of the question are the assumptions that served as the lynchpin of the question. What exactly is “the problem?”  Media and opponents of immigration reform point to statistics, rates, and the economy as rationales for restricting immigration to the United States.  The problem, in this configuration, looks at immigration as a deficit without looking at the sum total of the benefits that migration brings.  It seems then, that ‘the problem’ needs  revisiting. Instead of simply looking at border crossing –one must look at the reasons leading to the need to migrate.  Awhile undocumented immigration continues, and the number of individuals who are out of status grows, it’s equally important to look at the ways that the United States and its domestic and international policies have created humanitarian emergencies in countries around the globe.  Free trade agreements like NAFTA have collapsed the economic infrastructure in countries such as Mexico –driving farmers, small business owners, and numerous other organizations out of business. While a handful of businesses have prospered, many more people have been left destitute with families to feed and support.  In the face of such dire circumstances, is it any wonder that people would migrate to help their families survive?  Current immigration policy has made it near impossible for immigration to cross seasonally to work and then return home as they once used to.  The reality is that companies in the United States still need labor and actively recruit their labor force from outside the country and, in fact, support undocumented migration to the United States.  Companies such as Tyson chicken move factories to ‘Right to Work’ states, and have supported active campaigns encouraging undocumented workers to labor in their factories.    Pundits point to the continued proliferation of violence at the border as a persistent problem, but most fail to point out the lack of a humane deportation policy.  For those of you who have ever stood on the border fence at the US/Mexico border in Tijuana and watched ICE deport individuals back to Mexico –you quickly realize that these individuals have nothing but what they were wearing and had in their pockets during the raid.  Imagine if we simply allowed people to collect a few supplies or have families bring them money before they were deported –the desperate situations we see rising in border towns might be slightly abated.  Finally, when we think about ‘problems’ related to immigration, few people look at the staggering amount of time it takes to become naturalized in this country, or the years it takes for families to be reunified legally.  Imagine not seeing your son or daughter, sister or brother, and mom or dad for upwards of a decade.  The types of desperation both mental and physical are hard to imagine.

So what is the real “immigration problem?”  Perhaps it’s’ simply that as a society, we’re losing sight of that which makes us unique –humanity and compassion.  The world can be a better place if we let these two qualities instead of unfettered capitalism inform our foreign and domestic policy.

[i]Deportations rise under Obama;  More illegal immigrants expelled than in Bush years;
Emphasis being placed on convicted criminals”
Destefano, Anthony. Newsday. August 10, 2010 .  And http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/234/

[ii]The Border Closes: Immigration” The Economist. December 20th, 2008.  And “The Real Numbers on Illegal Immigration” by: William Finnegan. The New Yorker

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