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The Draconian Calculus of Immigration Reform


The United States has always had mixed feelings about its immigrants.

The country and its people take pride in their history as a “nation of immigrants”, and celebrate the diversity and bold spirits of pioneers who came from other countries in search of freedom and prosperity.

But many of those immigrants, in fact, faced bitter discrimination and violence in the new land. Africans forced over as slaves, the 19-century waves of poor Irish and  Italians, Japanese during World War II and Muslims after 9-11—all suffered the sting of anti-immigrant sentiment.

That ambivalence has surfaced again as Congress grapples with how to fix the “broken” immigration system.  The idea was to create a path to citizenship for the estimated eleven million migrants living in the United States without authorization. This population has no political rights, and goes to work or school every day in fear of arrest.

That seems to be fine with employers–who seek out cheap immigrant labor–but it’s a terrible way to have to live. The Obama administration’s massive deportations, more than one and a half million in his first term alone, mean that people who’ve been in the U.S. for nearly their whole lives are being stripped from their U.S.-born spouses and children, and sent back to a land they hardly know.

What started as comprehensive immigration reform has transformed into something very different.  In jumping through the hoops of a Congress sharply divided along party lines, Republicans and Democrats have loaded immigration reform with so-called border security measures, supposedly to win over the votes of reluctant conservatives.

In their peculiar political calculus, any effort to regulate the immigration status of mostly Mexican migrants in U.S. society must be accompanied by almost insurmountable conditions and draconian measures to close the border off to future migrants. The bill passed by the Senate would add a “surge”—the military language is no accident—of 20,000 Border Patrol agents to the US-Mexico border, more than doubling the force there. Even the union of Border Patrol agents has come out against the plan, saying that there is no need for the surge and that training and equipment for the current number of agents is insufficient.

Washington policy-makers are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. To Latino voters and their undocumented family and community members, they seek to send a message that their rights are finally being recognized in Congress. Then in the same breath, they build up the hate-filled and entirely unfounded image of immigrants as a threat to U.S. society by piling on expensive border militarization measures that, not coincidentally, translate into juicy government contracts for the U.S. defense and intelligence industry and pander to a very vocal racist minority.

“Disappointed” doesn’t even begin to express how many migrant organizations and immigrants’ rights groups are feeling about the process.  Oscar Chacón of the National Alliance of Latino and Caribbean Communities writes,

“In the service of achieving ‘Comprehensive Immigration Reform’ at all costs, our policy makers continue to feed into the erroneous notion that building more walls and essentially turning the U.S. southern border into a permanent war zone is the “solution” to our broken immigration policy. This is both bad public policy and obscenely wasteful; estimates are in excess of $40 billion over the next 10 years…

“Washington pundits, particularly the architects and main promoters of the legislative and policy strategy dubbed “Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR),” argue that these measures are part of the political compromise that will finally bring immigration policy reform to the finish line. From the perspective of folks living outside the Washington, DC bubble, this logic is hard to follow. As we see it, the goal of good public policy is taking a back seat to concessions to racist, xenophobic and corporate interests that have converged to take advantage of the immigration policy reform debate to push their own agendas.  If we end up with a policy that effectively shuts out many of the people it purports to help, while siphoning large amounts of public funds into private pockets, we run the risk of ending up in a worse situation than the one we are in now. Our country, including all its immigrant communities, deserves better.”

The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) released a statement titled unambiguously “Senate Immigration Bill Dashes Hope for Fair, Just Reform”. NNIRR board chair Eduardo Canales of Corpus Christi, Texas, stated that the bill “perpetuates and enhances failed policies of increased enforcement on the border and will continue to increase migrant deaths”, and warned of “further discrimination and racial profiling of immigrants and other workers of color” under the bill’s workplace verification plan. The organization’s members from immigrant communities across the country angrily criticized the bill.

Mexican migrants’ rights organizations added to the call for a more humane immigration reform in the United States in a joint statement issued July 11. They noted the death from dehydration of three indigenous migrant brothers:

“Inocencio, Macario y Humberto Plutarco de Jesús– 24, 18 and 15 years old– died in the desert last June 19, 2013, near Phoenix. The deaths of the young migrants from Cuanacaxtitlán, Guerrero, are the perfectly predictable and thereby preventable result of the militarization of this same borderline over the past 20 years, which has forced migrant flows from traditional routes, now inaccessible, to the most dangerous routes and encouraged bands of human traffickers and their accomplices among officials of both countries on all levels–federal, state and local; civilians, police and military.

“In spite of that, all this will intensify with the additional infusion of at least 46 billion dollars, the extension of the wall, 40 thousand members of the Border Patrol and deployment of the most sophisticated means of land and air interception, including drones as used to hunt terrorist suspects in Pakistan or Yemen…”

U.S. migrant organizations vowed to keep up the fight, no matter what happens with the reform. As many see the possibility of a Pyrrhic victory in Congress, they are preparing for a new state of tighter, more broad-based organization for migrant rights.

NNIR Director Catherin Tactaquin stated, “We will push back on the mean-spirited, xenophobic and punitive proposals that have already begun to emerge there.” She added, “The Obama Administration also needs to shoulder greater responsibility for the well-being and safety of immigrant communities, and break this downward spiral in the direction of immigration reform. We call on the Administration to start by suspending detentions and deportations and keeping families together as we continue on this difficult road to immigration reform.”

NALACC concluded, “… there will be a lot of work ahead of us, with or without legislative action this year. In particular, immigrant communities across the nation will have to find the wisdom and the courage to address the dual challenges of getting the most benefit of any changes to the immigration law that may be enacted this year, while at the same time becoming much better organized to right all the wrongs that the current proposed changes will leave unaddressed. Furthermore, we will need to develop our capacity to address the host of new problems that will be engendered by such a reform.”

We know that as long as there’s a demand for labor, desperately poor Mexicans and Central Americans will continue to fill it. We know that any solution to undocumented migration must take into account the U.S. and home country policies that are forcing people to migrate—free trade agreements that eliminate livelihoods for the poor, violence fueled by an insane drug war, and megaproject development that causes displacement, among others. Policies that work at cross purposes and then blame the victim for their own contradictions.

We know that costly border militarization measures don’t work and that they increase border-crosser deaths.

But Congress has so far turned a deaf ear to these concerns. Unless members of Congress have the courage to stand up for fair and effective legislation, what began as immigration reform will very likely end up looking more like the creation of a war zone on the southern border and a bureaucratic graveyard for the hopes of many at home.

And migrants’ struggle for basic rights will continue on to the next battle.

Laura Carlsen is Director of the CIP Americas Program at


Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

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