I see in the news that immigration reform has yet another lease on life. This is an incredibly important issue affecting the lives of millions of people. Here are some facts, and why you should care, and maybe even write your senators.
There are an estimated 12 million undocumented residents in the US, 60 percent of whom have been here for more than 5 years. There are 3 million US citizen children whose parents are undocumented - and thus can be deported without their children. Two million US families are of mixed legal status, meaning they have a mix of citizens, legal residents and undocumented residents. About 7 million unauthorized migrants account for roughly 5% of our civilian labor force. They make up 24% of all workers employed in farming occupations, 17% in cleaning, 14% in construction and 12% in food preparation. (Source: Pew Hispanic Center.)
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been conducting a series of raids, dubbed "Operation Return to Sender," which had rounded up about 18,000 people as of February - so I'm going to generously assume we're up to maybe 25,000 now. That's 25,000 people out of 12 million, or 2/10ths of one percent. People are being picked up a few at a time - 2 here, 200 there - in raids notorious for leaving citizen children stranded. Although Operations Return to Sender is touted as targeting individuals who have broken other laws (beyond immigration laws), 37 percent are "collateral" arrests - people they find along the way.
In my community, ICE agents reportedly show up at a local race track and remove one or two people quietly each day, held without the ability to even make phone calls for several days. Imagine the fear parents feel as they drop their kids off at school each morning, unsure if anyone will come to pick them up. The fear among vulnerable people - many from countries with a chilling history of government-sponsored abuctions, of stealing children as a form of political punishment - when their co-workers and loved ones simply disappear.
The fear is the point, really - otherwise, what would it take to round up 12 million people woven into the fabric of our communities? Imagine the money, the detention centers and hearing rooms, the sheer police presence needed to infiltrate and patrol. Trying to menace and terrorize people into leaving on their own is a calculated strategy. And in good American tradition, some of the profit of it all is already flowing into private hands - our local immigration detention center, the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, is managed by a private contractor. We even have "family" detention centers in this country, with little toddler-sized prison jumpsuits.
That is the first reason you should care. Because regardless of what you think about how people should or should not be allowed into this country, or about whether these workers fill critical jobs or drag down wages, or about border security or refugee rights or anything else - the United States government should not be disappearing people off the streets; a government that touts the family as the core of society should not be ripping families apart; and our bedrock legal concepts of due process must apply to everyone, or they are safe for no one.
As for the argument about whether illegal immigration contributes to or drains from our economy, people make the statistics say all kinds of things to support their point of view. But I will point out that the IRS itself estimates that 70% of undocumented immigrants pay payroll taxes - and these taxes paid under "unmatched" social security numbers help shore up the social security trust fund to the tune of $5 to $10 billion per year. As the IRS has made it easier for undocumented immigrants to legally pay their taxes without fear of immigration difficulties, more and more immigrants choose to do so, demonstrating their desire and commitment to be a recognized part of our social and economic fabric.
And for those who say "well, they did break the law" - I will just say that I have heard numerous stories, including from personal friends, who had every intention of following the law and broke it accidentally. Because it changed, and they didn't know it. Because they moved, and something from ICE didn't get forwarded to them. Because ICE employees perpetrated a sort of bait-and-switch, encouraging legal immigrants to apply for a more permanent form of residency and then - oops! - the application was denied while the original, perfectly good, legal documents expired. And once you've ever been out of compliance with immigration law, even for a little while and even if you tried to fix it immediately - you are a criminal.
So, that all said, the situation as it stands is absurd and cruel and untenable, BUT - the current McCain-Kennedy immigration proposal is not good. Here are several things fundamentally wrong with it, as drafted.
1. The "path to citizenship" offered to those 12 million people will take 8-13 years, and require a "touch-back" visit to their home country plus a $10,000 fine. What if they can't afford the $10,000? What if they cannot afford a trip to their home country, or are endangering their lives to go there? What if they're afraid of leaving their families for the "touch-back" and not getting back in? It seems plausible these things might happen, in which case we're right back where we started, with productive members of our communities living in the shadows.
2. The proposal dramatically shifts the immigration system from favoring family connection to favoring professions needed by employers. You get lots of "points" (literally) for having advanced degrees and working in math or science, but very few for having family members or citizen children here. Again, how does that solve the problem? If 24% of our agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants now, and the new legislation doesn't offer them a legal way to stay - will anything change? And besides, do we want to let this become one more way that our country's words say "family values" but our actions say "corporate profits?"
3. The guest worker program proposed in the legislation does not offer a path to legalization, penalizes people for keeping their families together, and offers few to none of the basic worker protections that the rest of us enjoy.
4. Nothing actually changes until the border fence with Mexico is complete, the number of border control agents is doubled, and the number of detention center beds is tripled. Citizen kids will continue to see their parents deported until we have three times the number of beds for non-citizen kids in little prison jumpsuits.
Write your members of Congress. Don't let the seeming complexity of the issue paralyze you. Think about what you believe is fair and humane and practical , and tell your elected officials what you think. Even if you disagree with me. Remember that we are all in collusion in creating this situation. If you eat food in this country, or stay at a hotel, you are part of it.
In closing, I'm not a Biblical sort of gal myself, but for those right-wing zealots wanting to lock 'em all up as criminals, I lift a verse from Leviticus, of all places - that baffling book full of dietary prohibitions and burnt offerings and a noticeable obsession with skin diseases. But it also mandates the jubilee, and forbids cheating of any kind, and tells you not to pick on disabled people or harbor hate in your heart. In one of these better moments, it offers a simple expression of desert hospitality, found throughout all the Abrahamic traditions, which I find strangely poetic and timeless.
"The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt." - - Leviticus 19:34Thank you for your time. (For more information, try Interfaith Worker Justice, the Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform, or the ACLU.)