Immigration Reform Part 2: Essential Elements for Moral, Comprehensive Reform

This is the second of two pieces I’ve written about immigration reform policy. The fist piece, which I posted on March 19, took a critical look at a proposal for immigration reform outlined by Charles Schumer and Lindsay Graham. This piece gives my ideas for what should be included in a moral comprehensive immigration reform.

On Friday, March 19, even as a year’s worth of debates around healthcare were coming to a close, two senators, Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) wrote a piece for The Washington Post in which they outlined a bi-partisan proposal for comprehensive immigration reform.

It was a mixed bag. I gave an analysis of their proposal in an earlier post, and, for the most part, I was critical of what the two senators set forth as a first step in the long journey toward comprehensive immigration reform. Such criticism is not particularly constructive, however, unless it is coupled with alternate ideas and suggestions for what actually will work; to that end I have identified five elements that I feel must be included in any morally responsible immigration reform bill.

These five elements come from the introduction to my forthcoming book Neighbor: Christian Encounters with “Illegal” Immigration. (The book, by the way, will not be released until the middle of August, but, thanks to the foresight and quick work of the folks at Westminster John Knox Press, you can pre-order a copy at My book primarily is about people and not policy, but it seemed fair, at the beginning of the book, to say which elements I believe should be a part of immigration reform legislation. I came up with these elements after spending a lot of time studying the issues, visiting the U.S./Mexico border, and interviewing dozens people from many different walks of life. Here, then, are the elements I believe must be part of moral, comprehensive, immigration reform:

1. The United States Government must provide visas for seasonal work, particularly for those working in the agriculture sector. Issuing visas for seasonal work would likely have the effect of decreasing the number of immigrants from Mexico living permanently in the United States because with visas workers could return to Mexico at the end of each season and not feel compelled to move their families north. This is a conviction I share with Senators Schumer and Graham and nearly everyone else I have met—liberal and conservative, in Mexico and in the United States—who is knowledgeable and wise about immigration matters.

2. Families should be kept together. Current laws that separate mixed-status spouses or that deport parents, separating them from their children, should be changed. When parents are deported, leaving citizen children without a mother or a father, no one benefits.

3. Children brought across the border by their parents should be treated differently than adults who immigrated alone, even after those children are adults. Under current immigration law adults who came to the United States as children are treated exactly as if they themselves had made the decision to immigrate. If they lack documentation, they live under the constant threat of deportation, and in many states they are denied drivers’ licenses, seriously hampering their chances of finding meaningful work. Even if they are legal residents, they face the possibility of deportation even for relatively minor offenses.

4. The border fence should be left to rust in the desert, or, better yet, uprooted and sold for scrap. If I could do so with any kind of efficacy, I’d stand by the fence that now runs along the border from the Pacific Ocean to the Rio Grande, and I’d declare with every possible ounce of conviction “Mr. Obama, tear down this wall!” The fence is not necessary—our nation’s southern border already runs through a mountainous desert which provides excellent border protection and national security, and makes the fence redundant. Also, at a cost of more than a billion dollars, the border fence is a ridiculous waste of money and, often, a tragic waste of human life. The wall doesn’t keep people out of the United States; it just encourages people to cross the border in increasingly dangerous places. Besides, as expensive as walls and fences are to build and maintain, ladders are cheap. The only people who benefit from the wall are politicians whose constituents like easy answers to complex issues.

5. I firmly believe that the movement of goods and services across the border should be controlled. Duty fees must be collected and contraband must be stopped, but the best way to control the flow of people is with economic development south of the border and with enforcement north of the border that targets business that hire undocumented persons rather than the migrants themselves.

My opinions are not unique to the progressive community in the United States, nor are they original to me. I heard variations on these themes everywhere I went in the United States and Mexico researching my book. This is not to say that everyone in the United States and Mexico agrees with me—not even close—but when discussions around immigration are educated, thoughtful, and are separated from fear, prejudice and xenophobia, consensus starts to appear and that consensus looks an awful lot like the five points I’ve made above.

One thought on “Immigration Reform Part 2: Essential Elements for Moral, Comprehensive Reform

  1. #1, visas for seasonal work, is a solution, assuming you mean unlimited visas for seasonal work. As long as there is more demand for seasonal work than we permit to come legally, people will come illegally, and stay longer than they want, and establish families here, and find other work between seasons, just so they can be here for the next season.

    #2, families should be kept together, is a goal without a solution. Exactly what changes do we need in immigration law, to keep from rendering families? As long as we exclude virtually all applicants with Numerical Limitations, and allow only a 12-year-long on average “line” if you have a parent or adult child who is a citizen, families will remain victims of our policies. Would you repeal Numerical Limitations and replace them with reasonable, ATTAINABLE criteria? I would.

    #3, give legal status to children brought here by parents. That was the reasoning of Plyler v. Doe in 1982, which required public schools to admit undocumented children, and is one of the arguments for the Dream Act today which would require colleges to admit them. Children brought here are not legally culpable, and in many cases have no other country in which they would know how to function. If Numerical Limitations are ever to be lifted, the most compelling case for lifting them would be regarding the children.

    #4, Tear Down the Wall. The Wall I want to see torn down is Numerical Limitations. With that down, and the existence of a “line” for all, hardly anyone would want to cross between border checkpoints. Thousands of the genuinely “bad guys”, instead of millions whose “crime” is looking for work. Thousands are much easier to catch than millions, requiring much less of a wall. People say first they will build the wall, then they will decide how to fix our broken immigration policy. That is like saying first we will hire enough highway patrolmen to enforce our 5 mph speed limit on the freeway, and then we will decide whether to raise the limit.

    #5, the problem with cracking down on businesses is that no one has proposed a way to do it without mandating use of the E-Verify system, formerly the Electronic Employment Verification System, formerly the Real ID Act applied to applying for a job. There are two serious problems with these national databases.

    First, they are full of errors. When a California court ruled against the USCIS in AFLCIO v. Chertoff, August 28, 2007, one big complaint was that the Social Security database has over 18 million no-match errors, where the number doesn’t match the name, and over 12 million of them are for citizens. Mandating use of this would lead to millions of citizens wrestling with bureaucrats to keep their jobs, and not always succeeding; it would lead to deportions of citizens.

    Second, the only thing scarier than mandating a system with 18 million errors before you can work, would be the existence of a national database of all its citizens with zero errors.

    Senator Jeff Sessions testified during the Comprehensive Immigration debate in 2007 that even with its passage, using its EEVS to check all job applicants, illegal immigration would have been slashed by only 13% over the next several years. So what more would it take to locate, say, 20%? If a national database of photos processed by facial recognition software, to be applied to all job applicants, in airports, federal buildings, borders, etc isn’t enough, the ONLY next logical step is surveillance cameras on every corner as in England.

    God is waiting to see how Christians in America will decide. Are we so determined to steal the freedom of “the least of Jesus’ brethren” (Matthew 25)who God commands we set free, that we are in a hurry to forfeit our own?

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