politics, USA

Moderating the “Undocumented” Issue

corazón girlDallas Protest March

They have a lot of names. Invaders. Spics. Terrorists. Wetbacks. Identity thieves. Less harshly, illegal aliens. Illegal immigrants. Undocumented workers.

They have been, over the last few years, one of America’s most important political flashpoints. Derided by some as simple lawbreakers who deserve no rights or preference. Praised by others as hardworking immigrants in the greatest American tradition that deserve a full place at the table.

Efforts to solve the problem that by various estimates includes 12 million, 17 million, or 20 million people have failed. After efforts to pass moderate reform laws twice failed, George W. Bush’s executive branch decided to make it appear that their Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm was serious about the problem. Raids on employers followed, with the brunt of the effort harming lay workers and the not the corporations that employ them.

This has brought the president some greater credibility with the “law and order” conservatives who seem to oppose any reform that doesn’t involve building a giant wall between the United States and Mexico and forcibly deporting all the undocumented.

But the Republican presidential field now lacks a member of that group. Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo–the immigration opponent–ended his presidential bid last month and threw his support behind the Massachusetts governor who had been accused (accurately it turns out) of running a “sanctuary mansion.” This detail came out in the same debate in which it was unveiled that the other governor, Mike Huckabee, didn’t oppose giving scholarship to the children of the undocumented. And the former mayor of New York City, like most other mayors of large American cities, had run a “sanctuary city.” John McCain, perhaps worst of all, twice supported the president’s push for moderation on the issue.

The Democrats’ history on the “undocumented” issue is much harder to pin down, current and former Senators that they (almost) all are. But Hillary Clinton fell into the fray about New York’s failed plan to license all drivers, legal citizens or not.

The whole issue has long been mired in two competing narratives, neither of which tells the whole story.

From the far right comes the narrative of inhuman criminals who are here to steal jobs. These Mexicans–they’re rarely seen as anything “white”–have broken the law by coming here, broken the law by living here, and broken the law by working here. The only way to make sure they leave never come back is to assure that their life in America is an impossible hell. We’ll have to assure they’re deprived government services, the right to work, and probably arrest a lot of them. And we’ll have to build a giant wall to make sure they never come back.

From the far left we get the narrative of the deprived and desperate economic refugees from an impossible life in Mexico. They’ve come here with hope and hard work in mind. They’re vital parts of their communities and should be treated with respect. Citizenship should be made available to them, as should larger quotas so people don’t have to come to America illegally.

The stark contrast between the two views is clear. As is the impossibility of a détente between them.

The country will not solve the problem unless the two views are rectified. And there are only two ways for that to happen. Moderates to win control of power in Washington, or the most determined partisans realizing that their views make them look like ham-handed buffoons (I doubt the latter will ever occur).

Americans do need to raise legal immigration levels, especially from Mexico and central American countries that have supplied most of the tide of illegals. They need to recognize that their immigration enforcement system is badly broken and in need of systematic repair. They must recognize that amnesty is not the answer, but also that a long wait, big fines, and a thorough background check is not amnesty.

Progress on this issues has been halting and frustrating. And though I sincerely hope that the new year and new president (I know that doesn’t officially happen until 2009, but it effectively happens in November) will bring a wiser political class with greater willingness to accept compromise and moderation, I recognize that I may be waiting some time.

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american society, big ideas, politics, USA

What is a criminal?

There are certain things we always take for granted. Things we, at one time or another, decided that we understood well enough and didn’t need to worry about any more. We know what a dog is, we know what democracy is, we know what taxes are. But should we really accept this state? Can we really afford to accept it?

This is the story of something that happened to me about two months ago. I tell this story now, and I beg the related question, because I think it merits some consideration. First because, with a rising prison population, I think we need to seriously consider how we treat “criminals” in this country. Further, much of the rhetoric (from those opposing the compromise) on illegal immigration is that the 12 or 20 million illegal immigrants in this country are criminals. We’ll come back to this in a second.

First, I believe that it is great to have your mind periodically blown. It’s great to have something you’ve never really given a great deal of thought to suddenly make sense in a way it never did before. One of the first times I really remember having my mind blown like this was when I realized why they are called movies. Because “movie,” the precursors to “talkie,” was a simple explanation of what occurred. A movie moved. A talkie both moved and talked. We call them movies today because the talking has become requisite. Blew my mind once.

Most recently, this was done by a teacher of mine. He was talking to a student working for the county’s justice center. She was calling the people she worked with on a regular basis criminals, rather than clients, suggesting that they were different from herself and the other workers.

And he stopped her. He said that she shouldn’t be so willing to accept that dichotomy. The dichotomy of the “criminals” and the “good and law abiding.” Because the fact is that criminals are not people who break the law, “criminals” are people who are caught breaking the law and are prosecuted for it. He went on to ask who in that room had never broken the law.

No one, in a room filled with respectable looking college students, said they hadn’t. Each of us had sped, imbibed alcohol before our 21st birthday, taken other illicit substances, stolen or worse. And yet, to the traditional dichotomy, we were not criminals. Criminals were the people in prison. Criminals were the people that did things that we wouldn’t do. Never mind that over half the US prison population is serving time for drug possession, or a similarly mundane crime.

It struck me that this dichotomy exists only for the comfort of the “average, law-abiding” citizens. But is the average citizen really likely to abide by all laws? Should they really be able to castigate another as a “criminal”? For that person’s whole life?

It seems that we call people criminals so we don’t have to feel like we have an obligation to “criminals” as fellow citizens, as fellow human beings. So that we can just complain that we’re spending all this money “keeping us safe from criminals.” Keeping us safe from ourselves.

The destruction of this false dichotomy gives rise to a number questions. Can we really tolerate our heinously over-crowded prison system? What if the authorities decided that we, too, were criminals–we have probably broken the law at least once? Can we afford not to take steps to better the lives of our “criminals”? And to not help them avoid patterns of behavior that can and do often get them back to prison far too soon?

Can we really hold illegal immigrants in such great contempt? Are they really so different from “good, law abiding” citizens? After all, if all citizens and all (legal) resident aliens truly respected all the laws of our country, we would never ever break them. No one would ever break the speed limit. No one would ever drink before their 21st birthday. Take illicit drugs. Steal from Wal-Mart. Break into a building. Get in a fight. Drive under the influence. Kidnap or murder another. Steal their employees’ pension funds. We could close the police office, the sheriff’s department, the state patrol, and the FBI. But we can’t. The seeming absurdity of the thought emphasizes that fact.

If we citizens and legal immigrants of the United State break some laws, how can we be so angered that others do as well? Some will surely say that speeding or petty theft isn’t as severe as entering the country illegally. But by what measure? Why is what they are doing worse than what you have done? Because you didn’t do it? Because they’re breaking the law and not you?

I believe it was that man Jesus who said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” And I believe those who cling so hard to the “criminal” dichotomy on illegal immigration need to seriously consider the answer to that question. In fact, I believe we all need to consider the answer to this question.

What is a criminal?

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politics, USA

Misguided Reform: The Problem of the Guest Worker

Though I wrote this about a year ago, as a response to the large immigration reform/guest worker program which was then tied to President Bush, I think it relevance is renewed by the new bill and the new push [dead link removed, 12/28/07] to get it passed. Those parts not relevant to the current legislation discussion have been discarded.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Long taken as the very motto of American immigrations policy, the last lines of Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” inscribed beneath the Statue of Liberty, are now more relevant than ever. As more and more people join the debate on illegal immigration, the United States faces an interesting dilemma. Does it send these immigrants away, violating our immigrant tradition, or allow them legal residency with modest penalties? Increasingly, policies appear to look toward European immigration models rather than the idealized “one great period of immigration,” as President Bush called the turn-of-the-century period, “[in which] our nation received some 18 million men, women and children from other nations.” America’s idealized view of it’s immigration past is just that, but it seems a far better basis for immigration policy than the Europeans programs which have recently and blatantly shown their failings. By advocating a guest worker program which seems far more European than American, Bush puts our country at risk of increasing immigrant dissatisfaction and alienation in contradiction to our “history” of traditional assimilation and understanding. This is made all the more clear if we examine the failures of European immigration programs and the successes of America’s idealized immigration mythology.

Where the Bush program first errs is that it borrows heavily from Europe, where immigration policies have largely failed to produce assimilated immigrants. As Fareed Zakaria, a Newsweek columnist, points out, “Many Americans have become enamored of the European approach to immigration—perhaps without realizing it.” He explains why this is problematic by saying, “Across Europe one sees disaffected, alienated immigrants, ripe for radicalism.” Zakaria is claiming that Bush’s guest worker program would be inherently flawed, and that those flaws are readily apparent across Europe today. This tells us that we must tread carefully in this debate. If Zakaria is right about the similarities, we have good reason to avoid mimicking this approach to solving our own immigration problems.

The flaws of European guest worker programs are pointed out by Stephen Castles, a sociologist now of Oxford University. Castles argues that these workers, who were first hired after WWII, soon became permanent ethnic minorities who never returned home. He goes so far as to say that “guest-worker systems inevitably lead to permanent migration in the long run, and that it is better to plan for orderly settlement.” By ignoring research like Castles’s, Bush’s program is at risk of developing the same problems that Europe has had. In turning a blind-eye to this research, we’re risking the creation of an unintended pool of immigrants with few legal rights that would further exacerbate our current problems.

The devastating effects of the failures of European guest worker programs was made strikingly clear in the Parisian riots of late 2005. In a story on the riots, CBC News supports Castles claims by pointing out that these rioter were the remnants of the guest worker waves, and that the program created large ethnic neighborhoods that showed a volatile “combination of ethnic concentration and poverty and high unemployment” that made these young people largely dissatisfied and disconnected from the French mainstream. As such, the remnants of the French guest-worker program clearly fomented the riots of 2005. In the absence of efforts to bring these immigrants into the mainstream of French society, due to a lack of foresight on the government planner’s part, Zakaria’s “disaffected, alienated immigrants” were the result.

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