This is the first of two essays that I will publish on my blog. This essay is a critique of Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsay Graham’s recent proposal for immigration reform. The second essay, drawing from my forthcoming book, Neighbor: Christian Encounters With “Illegal” Immigration (Westminster John Knox Press, summer 2010) will outline the policies that I believe are necessary for a morally sound immigration reform bill.
On March 19, 2010 The Washington Post published a bi-partisan outline for immigration reform. Penned by Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC), the proposal rests on four pillars:
1) the requirement of “biometric Social Security cards to ensure that illegal workers cannot get jobs”;
2) “fulfilling and strengthening our commitments on border security and interior enforcement”;
3) the creation of “a process for admitting temporary workers”; and
4) the implementation of “a tough but fair path to legalization for those already here.”
For the last two years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about immigration. I’ve done a good bit of research, I’ve traveled to the border, I’ve spoken with and interviewed scores of people including several undocumented migrants, and I’ve written a book about what I learned from my research, travel, and personal encounters with migrants (the book, which is being published by Westminster John Knox Press, is called Neighbor: Christian Encounters With “Illegal” Immigration; look for it in stores and online this summer).
Applying what I’ve learned while writing a book about immigration, I can say that Schumer and Graham’s plan is a mixed bag. I’m glad the process of serious immigration reform has begun, and I’m glad that it is bi-partisan so far, but I wish it were more practical and less political, which is to say that while some of the solutions the senators offer are really good, others are either immoral or they make no sense in the real world.
First, the good. We really need a process by which temporary workers may be admitted into the United States to do seasonal work, particularly in the agricultural sector. Willing workers have been crossing our nation’s borders to harvest our food for as long as there have been borders, and, for the most part, those who have been able to return after a harvest have done so. As it became more difficult for workers to go back and forth, workers stayed in the United States and brought their families north to stay with them. Most seasonal workers would be attracted to the possibility of earning dollars but supporting their family in pesos, especially if that means they can keep a home in the place where they have family ties and cultural roots.
While writing my book I interviewed a liberal congresswoman, a conservative federal judge, and several assistant U.S. attorneys; I visited the border with pastors and activists from the United States and Mexico and I spent time with lots of undocumented migrants in the United States as well as well as with Mexican migrants preparing the cross the border without permission or papers. Everyone I met while writing my book expressed a desire to see seasonal visas issued to temporary workers. It just makes sense.
The other three pillars of the Schumer/Graham proposal look good on the surface, but they are deeply problematic; I’ll address them from least difficult to most repugnant.
1) Biometric cards that ensure the citizenship of those who are employed are not a bad idea. The best way to keep people from entering the United States illegally is to take away the availability of jobs for those without proper paperwork. The problem is that while biometric cards certainly will keep people from using false identification to get jobs which issue paychecks (complete with taxes and social security withheld—something that benefits the rest of society), the biometric cards will do nothing to discourage people from working for cash, and therefore, the issuance of biometric cards actually has the potential of driving more people into the shadows of society where they are at greater risk for exploitation, and where no withheld taxes flow into the government’s coffers.
2) The idea that we can implement a “tough but fair” process of legalization for those who already are here also sounds good and it will play well to those American voters who are both compassionate and law-abiding. The devil is in the details of what Schummer and Graham propose:
For the 11 million immigrants already in this country illegally, we would provide a tough but fair path forward. They would be required to admit they broke the law and to pay their debt to society by performing community service and paying fines and back taxes. These people would be required to pass background checks and be proficient in English before going to the back of the line of prospective immigrants to earn the opportunity to work toward lawful permanent residence.
Here we must ask a few questions. First, to the back of which line would they go? Would they have to return to their countries of origin and wait? If so, how is that not deportation? Would going to the back of the line simply mean that they would have to wait a little longer for their visas to be approved while continuing to reside and work in the United States? If so, how is that going to the back of any line, and how will it discourage future migrants from making the trip north?
And what about those who entered the United States illegally while they were children? Will we require a third-grader to pay back taxes and do community service? This problem doesn’t go away when undocumented children reach adulthood, either. Is it fair to ask an adult who grew up in the United States and received an American education, who is culturally, linguistically, and soulfully American, to suffer punishment because his or her parents decided to move the family north decades ago, when the person in question was still in diapers? If we assume that no child chooses to immigrate, doesn’t punishing those who migrate as children amount to punishing a person for actions committed by someone else?
3) Finally, there is the issue of border enforcement. Schumer and Graham write,
We would bolster recent efforts to secure our borders by increasing the Border Patrol’s staffing and funding for infrastructure and technology. More personnel would be deployed to the border immediately to fill gaps in apprehension capabilities.
Schumer is from New York, Graham is from South Carolina, and I wonder if either of them has been to the U.S./Mexico border. The “recent efforts to secure our borders” that the senators say they would bolster have been a disaster. Despite the fact that the United States already has a mountainous desert on its southwestern flank—providing better national security than any artifice of human ingenuity—we have spent more than a billion dollars building a steel fence between Imperial Beach, California and El Paso Texas, and it keeps falling down. This is a truth I saw with my own eyes just west of Agua Prieta, Sonora. I walked up an arroyo to a place where seasonal flashfloods wash out sections of the fence, as flooding does wherever water crosses the border. The fence also will fall down in places where sand shifts, rocks slide, or roots grow, which is to say, lots of places in that part of the world. Besides, as expensive and as difficult as it is construct a fence across mountains in the desert, ladders are cheap to buy and easy to use. So are shovels and hacksaws. A fence won’t stop undocumented migration across our borders. (For a good illustration of this point—if you don’t mind salty language and gratuitous nudity—see Penn and Teller’s Bullshit season 5 episode 6 on immigration.)
The worst part about enhancing the border’s “infrastructure and apprehension capabilities” is the cost in human life. Fences and patrols don’t stop people from crossing the border but they do encourage people to cross the border in places where it is not safe. Our policies around securing America’s southern border have driven people out into the desert where, with increasing regularity, they die from thirst and exposure and where they are prey for bandits and drug-smugglers. Thanks to the border’s fence and the strict enforcement by the U.S. Border Patrol the United States has created a humanitarian disaster along the border. Claiming to be tough on enforcement may be good politics, but too many people have died in the deserts of Sonora, New Mexico, Arizona, and California to say that it is good policy.
Schumer and Graham deserve credit for starting what will be a difficult journey toward immigration reform. Unfortunately, they’ve gone several steps in the wrong direction. My prayer is that the lawmaking process will amend the pillars of Schumer and Graham’s proposal in such a way that render immigration policies that are healing and life-giving for citizen and migrant alike.