Immigration Reform: We Can Do Better

This blog post also ran on the Huffington Post.

In the last few weeks, a lot has been happening in the great American conversation around immigration. A federal court struck down SB 1070, Arizona’s “get-tough-on-immigration-because-the-Obama-administration-won’t-do-diddily” law. Several prominent Republicans have started campaigning against the 14th amendment to the United States’ constitution, which, among other things, grants citizenship to any person born in the Unites States. Then, in the second week of August, both the House and Senate passed an emergency spending bill that will send 600 million dollars to the US border. The money will pay for 1500 border enforcement personnel, it will support the overburdened court system, and it will provide for the monitoring of the border by unmanned aircraft.

Count mine among the Americans who wish to see Washington do something about undocumented migration across our southwest border — not because undocumented persons are harming our nation (they’re not; in fact the United States benefits from illegal immigration), but because each year hundreds of good people die trying to cross our borders. People have been migrating across the landscape now bisected with an international border since long before either the United States or Mexico existed, and they’re not going to stop now. The poverty in Mexico is too extreme, and the economic opportunities north of the border are too alluring.

Rather than laws that will encourage increasingly dangerous (and fatal) border crossings, we need measures that will keep people safe, will promote economic vitality on both sides of the border, and will enable those who work in America to move freely back and forth across the border.

To that end, I have identified five elements that I feel must be included in any morally responsible immigration reform bill. I came up with these elements after spending a lot of time studying the issues, visiting the US/Mexico border, and interviewing dozens of people from many different walks of life for my just-released book, Neighbor: Christian Encounters with “Illegal” Immigration (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010)

  • The United States Government must provide visas for seasonal work, particularly for people 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. While writing my book, I found I shared this conviction with liberals and conservatives, Mexicans and Americans, nearly everyone I met who is knowledgeable and wise about immigration matters.</li>
  • 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. </li>
  • Children brought across the border by their parents should be treated differently from 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.
  • The border fence should be left to rust in the desert, or, better yet, uprooted and sold for scrap. If it would do any good, 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. So are shovels and hacksaws. The only people who benefit from the wall are politicians whose constituents like easy answers to complex issues.
  • 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 not the migrants themselves but businesses that hire undocumented persons.

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.

It’s time for our leaders to pass comprehensive immigration reform and to do so in a way that fuels the economy, protects families and children, saves lives, and is rational and enforceable. I believe America is good enough, strong enough, and creative enough to make an immigration policy that works for all of us.

9 thoughts on “Immigration Reform: We Can Do Better

  1. You say “The wall doesn’t keep people out of the United States; it just encourages people to cross the border in increasingly dangerous places. ”

    Uh, Ben, isn’t that because the wall was built over only a fraction of the border? Doesn’t the fact that illegal border crossers choose the long treacherous desert trip in preference to jumping the fence in San Diego (about 15 miles from where I’m sitting right now) indicate that fences DO work? Otherwise, why not come to SD and jump the fence?

    Inferring that fences don’t work because of what is happening at the border now would be like locking half of the doors in your house while you’re away, finding that you still get burglarized, and saying “well I guess locks don’t work.”

    With all respect, Ben, I fear you’re letting your moralistic emotions get in the way of the most elementary common sense reasoning!

  2. Hal, the border fence stretches almost all they way from Imperial Beach south of San Diego to where the Rio Grande turns South East and follows the border to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s nearly 700 miles. There are some gaps, of course, but not too many.

    Here’s where Fence advocates abandon common sense: fences fall down (I saw one of many places where the fence is washed out by seasonal floods), and it’s easy to breach a fence with a ladder, a shovel or a hack saw. But we keep throwing money into the fence–even though it doesn’t work–because it feels good, but it really doesn’t work.

    People who advocate for fences are like people who lock all of the doors, get robbed anyway, and decide the solution is replacing the locks with the same make and model of locks that didn’t work in the first place.

  3. Interesting points, Ben.

    I agree with you on a number of points, including that employer enforcement should be the main way of stopping future illegal immigration. But there need not be any either-or here: we can build the fence where it is useful, even as we introduce more employer sanctions. Since the feds don’t even really want to control the border, some states are starting to focus on employers (eg requiring use of EVerify as a condition of a business license), and some are achieving pretty good success (including AZ, which already had a net egress underway before the new law even passed).

    Your opposition to the fence seems kind emotional and symbolic. Since the Great Recession began, we are living in a new time, Ben, in which we are finally coming to realize that we are not an infinitely rich nation in which we can be preoccupied with trying to be super nice people.

    Returning to your article, I like your axiomatic approach, but why don’t you include some axiom like “People who broke the law in coming to the US (or overstayed a lawful visa) should never be advantaged in regard to immigration opportunities over anyone from the same country who did not choose to violate our laws.

    For most of us, that is a real bedrock principle. And all legalization schemes (even if accompanied by little penalties and what not) fail to satisfy that axiom.

    It comes down to a fundamental moral/legal question: if people break the law, should their lawbreaking be overlooked if one element that contributed to it was their being very poor? To me, the answer is simply “no”. I imagine you would agree about shoplifters or people who rob your house.

  4. Sir, You are completely misinformed. I wish people with your lack of understanding would refrain from trying to guise your leftist political beliefs as Christian. I grew up on the southwest border. I work now trying to protect the border. Do you have any clue how much narcotics the U.S. Border Patrol seizes? Do you not realize that the fence is only on a portion of the border and is designed in fact to deter the crossings from urban areas where it is very easy to hide. If there was no fence in Yuma, Nogales, San Diego, or El Paso there would be no operational control of those areas, which there is now. If you only knew the real story of illegal immigration, the people who are being exploited by smugglers, not the U.S., maybe you would understand the true threats this country is facing. You are the classic example of someone who has never done the work, seen the real death and pain of the border, just one who talks. You would not feel this way if your family was blown up by a suicide bomber that came through a tunnel in San Diego. Is that what it would take?

  5. So I’m not really sure how to respond. First, I have spent time along the border, and I’ve don’t a lot of research on the subject. In fact, I’ve written a book on the subject of immigration, so I’m not some greenhorn on the subject. The border patrol’s own website says the border fence crosses almost all the way from San Ysidro to El Paso, and I’ve seen it personally, fairly far out into the desert. We could argue about weather or not the fence that is there is well-constructed or sufficient–that’s a very legitimate debate–but the fence is a fact.

    As to drugs, I’m all for catching the drug-smugglers. A dear friend of mine is a Assistant US Attorney in New Mexico, and he’s taken me to talk with FBI, DHS, and DEA agents. These people do good work, but drug smuggling is not the same thing as immigration. My friend works hard at his job, he’s good at what he does and mostly the bad guys he and his colleagues catch are US citizens or they are legal residents. Sure, you get mules (the migrants who carry backpacks full of drugs in exchange for help getting across the border) but the real bad actors are not he “illegals.”

    I wonder if you’ve ever sat down and talked with someone whose family has been ripped asunder by our nation’s immigration policies. I wonder if you’ve ever heard the stories of what motivates people to make the crossing. I wonder if you have ever been willing to witness the face of Christ in your sister or brother who must come north.

    You say that I am “trying to guise [my] leftist political beliefs as Christian,” and I say that your critique of my Christian witness is devoid of any kind of theological insight or biblical analysis. I mean this sincerely: I would love to engage you as a Christian. Show me how I have betrayed the biblical witness. Show me how my writing is out of line with the great theological traditions of the Christian Church (or of any other religious tradition for that matter). If you need help talk to your pastor.

  6. I have read all about this article ,I work now trying to protect the border. Do you have any clue how much narcotics the U.S. Its very best and informative for all.

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