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Remanding Migrants “To the End of the Line“

Roberto C. Rodriguez: Our mindset about immigration needs to change radically before this country will see justice in immigration policy.

After decades of nonstop demonization and scapegoating of migrants, the unveiling of Congress’ comprehensive immigration reform proposals was profoundly disturbing. Congress continues to link criminality with the humane and courageous act of migration. Its proposals are anchored in prioritization of enforcement; that is, criminalization of migrants, punishment, detention, imprisonment, mass deportations, the continued militarization of the border and the borderization of the nation.

While the president’s overall message was better, his passage about migrants “going to the back of the line” was equally troubling, especially when considering that the policies listed above are the president’s current policies.

Specifically, the president said: “We’ve got to lay out a path, a process that includes passing a background check, paying taxes, paying a penalty, learning English, and then going to the back of the line behind all the folks who are trying to come here legally; that’s only fair.”

It is doubtful that most people expect much from Congress, at least in the realm of proposals that treat migrants as full human beings, but expectations for the president are much higher.

While that “back of the line” slogan was in there to soothe conservative doubters, what could faintly be heard were “back of the bus” echos.

Indeed, the most profound aspect of the immigration “debate” over the past few decades has been the normalization of dehumanization. This is what permits inane proposals to be passed off as reform. This is what permits the conflation of migration, criminality, drug-running and even terrorism. This is what permits the view that migrants are subhuman, or, at best, exploitable labor.

While the president’s message to migrants is better, his approach is still mired in the concept of blame and punishment. Most Republicans/conservatives who speak up on this issue, apparently tone-deaf, are seemingly incapable of listening to themselves. Their aversion to “amnesty” is the embodiment of dehumanization. Their clinging to legal/illegal binaries does not conceal their true sentiments as they often refer to migrants as “illegals,” clueless as to why this is demeaning and inaccurate (acts are illegal, not human beings). The unmistakable message they send out: you brown people are not welcome in this country.

But no one expects much different from that side of the political spectrum (and I’m not even talking about the extremists here). Top Republican leaders have already threatened to derail the process if the president goes too far. Apparently, once again, it is the people on the losing end of the presidential election and on the wrong side of history who are dictating the solution to the immigration crisis.

That’s why the president’s statement was disturbing: he is already sending signals that he will not go too far. He already has a very disappointing four-year record of “not going too far” in favor of migrants, except for the last-minute deferred status program that suspended the deportation of young people eligible for the as yet unpassed DREAM Act. The record number of deportations under his watch, the continued separation of families, the massive expansion of the immigration detention system (some 275 detention centers) and the continued militarization of the border have earned him the moniker “deporter in chief.”

And he is the good guy in this debate.

And now, remanding human beings to the end of the line is an even bigger step backward and incongruous with treating migrants as full human beings. It sends out the wrong message. The codification of unequal and dehumanized categories of human beings is both impermissible and contrary to human rights law.

Yet, the primary issue here is not about specifics or details regarding the immigration proposals, but rather a mindset or narrative.

Without the change in attitude and mindset, policy will always lead to the codification of this inequality in the form of temporary and limbo categories of human beings. For many, these would actually become permanent categories, considering the size of the current lines for legalization and citizenship. This is why – when there are already more than 11 million so-called undocumented immigrants – this mindset still permits the creation or expansion of guest worker programs.

Guest workers? Read: braceros. That’s where the problem started, in 1942 through 1964: the importation of human beings who were treated as less than human, undeserving of full human and labor rights.

This back-of-the-line mindset is setting us up for converting these 11 million migrants into less-than-humans, undeserving of full human and labor rights.

Yet, in the end, conservatives are right about one thing: if the source of the problem is not addressed, migrants will continue to stream into the United States. If the nation is serious, and if the emphasis is on Mexico and Central America, rather than spending billions building moats, the United States should embark upon a long-term program that equalizes the economies of the region, a program akin to a NAFTA-type agreement, but with human beings at the center, as opposed to absent from the equation.

But would the big corporations really want that? Can society as a whole accept the equality of all peoples and nations in this region, in this hemisphere? It’s easier to build moats, isn’t it?

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