In mid-April, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carried out a six-day operation in the New York metropolitan area, detaining a total of 225 people.
One month later, a young US citizen named Augustina stood in Manhattan’s Foley Square, a few hundred feet from ICE’s regional headquarters, and told a crowd of journalists and supporters how the series of raids — code-named “Operation Keep Safe” — had impacted her and her family. Claiming they were police, ICE agents “welcomed themselves in” at the family’s East Harlem apartment, she said, and led away her diabetic mother, who had lived in the United States for more than 30 years. As the oldest citizen left in the family, Augustina was now having to file for guardianship of her 12-year-old sister.
The media had covered the number of immigrants arrested in the April raid, Augustina noted, but not how it had affected their friends and relatives. “We’re not just numbers,” she said. “When will our undocumented families be recognized as human beings?”
The young woman was just one of many speakers at what was billed as a “People’s Press Conference.” According to the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York, a sponsor of the conference, the event was intended to present “testimonials … by people and their families who have survived the violence of deportation.” Other groups, including Families For Freedom, had held a similar “People’s Tribunal” at the same spot three weeks earlier. On both occasions, many or most of the speakers were US citizens whose lives had been devastated by the detention or deportation of immigrants like Augustina’s mother.
Donald Trump’s recent policy of family separation at the borders motivated an upsurge in activism around immigration this summer, including widespread calls to abolish ICE. Now it’s time to go further: We need to attack the long-standing policy of separating families inside our borders, the policy that provides much of the pretext for ICE’s existence.
Amnesties Past and Present
A general amnesty — a legalization program for the US’s undocumented immigrants — is necessary and long overdue.
By most estimates, the United States currently has an undocumented population of some 11 million, and the number has basically remained stable for the past 10 years. Like Augustina’s mother, about three-quarters of these immigrants have lived here for a decade or more but have no way to acquire legal status. Most have families that include US citizens, green card holders or both. There are about 16 million people living in these mixed-status families. Most undocumented immigrants also have networks of friends, neighbors and co-workers with citizenship. These millions of US citizens are impacted by the stress their undocumented friends and relatives experience, and they are often affected as severely by deportations as the deportees themselves.
So why do we put up with this? Politicians and the mainstream media generally have three explanations, explicit or implied: It’s normal to have a large segment of our immigrant population living here so many years without legal status; a general amnesty would attract a new “flood” of unauthorized immigration; and passing an amnesty law simply wouldn’t be feasible in the current political climate.
All three are wrong.
Nothing about the present situation is normal. It’s true that we implemented terrible immigration policies in the past — the exclusion of Asians, the mass deportations of Mexican Americans in the 1930s and the incarceration of Japanese Americans in the 1940s — but as long as immigration was mostly from Europe, the US government generally offered long-term residents ways to legalize. Even after European immigration was sharply restricted in the 1920s, several hundred thousand undocumented people acquired status through the so-called “registry” program and similar amnesties.
The US’s last legalization program, part of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), opened the way to legal status for as many as 2.9 million immigrants, largely people who had arrived here by 1982. But the immigrants who benefited from this amnesty weren’t principally from Europe, and the measure has since become a target for conservative forces.
Immigration opponents regularly claim the 1986 amnesty sparked a sharp increase in unauthorized immigration, mostly by Mexicans, during the mid-1990s. But if this increase correlated with anything, it was with the 1994-1995 economic crisis in Mexico and the disruption of Mexican family farming after the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In fact, demographers find no evidence for the right-wing claim, and two surveys of undocumented immigrants indicate that the 1986 amnesty had little or no influence on their decisions to immigrate.
Still, even if a new amnesty measure wouldn’t create problems, politicians, including establishment Democrats, act as if the measure would be too radical for most US voters to accept. An amnesty can only be won through compromises with the anti-immigrant right, they insist. On this basis, the various bipartisan “comprehensive immigration reforms” considered by Congress since 2005 have included new guest worker programs and greatly expanded border enforcement as a trade-off for a very limited amnesty.
In reality, polls indicate that the US public favors some form of legalization, and sympathy for the undocumented seems to be growing. So why should we compromise? A general amnesty won’t solve all the problems in our immigration system, but it would certainly create a better life for millions of immigrants, their families and their communities.
Late in the People’s Press Conference, an 8-year-old US citizen named Alex stepped up to the microphone to talk about his father, who had been seized by immigration authorities. “I have the right to have my dad back,” he told the crowd.