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The Missing Discourse in Immigration Reform

(Photo: Jennifer gagliardi / Flickr)

During the 2008 election season, Barack Obama campaigned with a promise to enact “immigration reform” within his first year in office.

Fast-forward five years, and many undocumented immigrants remain in limbo. And despite a recent wave of protests, those immigrants will continue to wait: The House has just left Washington for its five-week summer break without voting on reform.

However, if and when the vote does take place, it will be important to consider what “immigration reform” truly entails. How many people would actually benefit from it? The highly anticipated bill is already a monumental disappointment to many. Only those who were physically present in the United States before December 31, 2011, and have not left the country since then are eligible, and people in provisional legal status could work and travel in the US but would not be eligible for most federal benefits, including health care and welfare. Because of those restrictions, many will be unable to apply for a green card, and those who can apply will have an incredibly long path to citizenship of 13 years or more. Not only is the wait absurdly long, the bill also burdens applicants with high fines and fees. If you’re eligible and able to afford it, you will wait well over a decade and still be considered a second class citizen.

Study after study proves that offering a path to citizenship to the undocumented would boost the economy. The White House recently released The Economic Benefits of Fixing Our Broken Immigration System, which projects that immigration legislation would add about $700 billion in 2023 and $1.3 trillion in 2033 in today’s dollars to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.

Bringing undocumented workers out of the shadows and into the legal economy would result in higher productivity and investment. So why is there so much fear surrounding the prospect of permitting hardworking people to become citizens?

The reason is fear – a deep-seated and enduring fear of Otherness. What besides hatred and fear would possess Republican Congressman Steve King to compare undocumented immigrants to dogs and cattle and liken illegal immigration to the Holocaust? Why else would he say when referring to the DREAMers, “For every one that’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that they weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert”?.

But as historian Steven Pitti reminds us, the United States has a long legacy of distrusting immigrants. “Despite immigrants’ efforts to correct such lies, Congressman King’s name-calling strikes a deep chord in the contemporary United States,” Pitti writes. “Declarations similar to those made by the Iowa Congressman have been echoed again and again by policymakers over the last century.”

What’s missing from immigration discourse is an honest, public, front-and-center examination of the roots of this issue. As the racial demographics in this country change drastically, powerful white men become more and more terrified to lose their power. The backlash against immigrants and people of color escalates. These are the same men who are afraid of the increasing influence of women and pass legislation to control their bodies.

It’s no coincidence that the number of hate crimes against Latinos has been on the rise over the last decade. A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center found that there were 1,018 hate groups operating in the United States in 2011, up from 1,002 in 2010. According to the center, the increase was mostly a result of the hate groups’ exploitation of the issue of non-white immigration.

While the “reform” bill does little for the millions of undocumented immigrants anxious to become American citizens, it does funnel millions of dollars to border security to shut out all the supposed criminals and drug smugglers. In an attempt to gain as much bipartisan support as possible, the authors of the Senate legislation recently added a plan for a “border surge,” which includes almost 19,000 new Border Patrol agents, the building of 700 additional miles of walls, fences, and barriers, and an investment of billions of dollars in the latest surveillance technologies, including drones.

Why invest billions of dollars in border security when the number of border apprehensions has plummeted in recent years? Why is Border Patrol considering adding razor wire fences to deter immigrants? If politicians are so terrified of hordes of immigrants crossing the border, why not consider what compels people to leave the only home they’ve ever known to toil in a country that essentially hates them? Instead of worrying about fences and pumping billions of dollars into the Great Wall of Mexico, why not reconsider the economic policies that have ruined the livelihoods of our southern neighbors?

Much of the poverty in Mexico has been a result of IMF and World Bank-led neoliberal policies which were culminated in NAFTA, now 20 years old. When NAFTA opened up Mexican markets to imports from US companies, many Mexican farmers and business owners were devastated by the drop in prices. The agreement was supposed to help industrialize Mexico, increase productivity, and raise wages. Official statistics, however, show that more than 12 million people became impoverished from 2006 to 2010, which caused the poverty level to jump to 51.3 percent of the population. In the past decade, Mexico saw the slowest reduction in poverty in all of Latin America. The United States aims to reap the benefits of neoliberalism without any consequences, the underlying message being: We will exploit your country for our economic benefit, but please don’t immigrate here when our policies have starved your family.

These are issues we must address consistently on a national platform, if we are to shift immigration policy to a place that is both sane and humane.