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Protect Us, Don't Arrest Us: The Case for Progressive Immigration Reform

02/05/2013 02:37 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2013
  • Charlene Obernauer Executive Director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, Co-Founder of New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition

Over the past week, immigrant rights advocates have had their share of excitement and disappointment. From anxiously awaiting Obama's speech on immigration reform, to hearing him call immigrants who cross the border "illegal," advocates are optimistic and critical, intrigued and afraid. We want progressive immigration reform that we can mobilize behind, but instead we're left with more of the same: a plan that is heavy on enforcement and weak on amnesty, and that leaves us wanting so much more.

The Gang of 8, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and President Obama himself have all recently made statements and released blueprints for immigration reform. But none of the proposals are what advocates are looking for.

First, the senators should stop pretending that immigrants choose to come to this country as simply as one might decide on the location of an exotic vacation. Free trade agreements have impoverished the labor force in Mexico, Latin America, and all over the world. Many people will die (and have died) trying to get to the United States, because the alternative is to die at home. If the current immigration proposals do not address international poverty created by free trade agreements then the poor will not stop migrating northward.

You can't build a wall high enough, or militarize the border strongly enough, to prevent people from coming here. Immigrants will come here for a job and stay when their post is up, come as students and stay for life; come by boat, by plane, by underground railroad if they have to -- people do what they must to survive. The U.S. can spend billions of dollars on a dome if they wanted to, but this will not fix our broken immigration system. In Obama's first four years as president, he drastically increased the number of Border Patrol Agents, or "boots on the ground." The number of undocumented immigrants entering may have decreased, but migrants are crossing all the same.

Second, we need to grant more visas so that people can come here with the proper documentation. Obama's speech suggested that "skilled workers" are the only ones who need visas, but the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Gang of 8 correctly outlined the need for increased visas for agricultural workers. But with the increase in work visas, we have to ensure that people are not put in dangerous working conditions, like those of many guest worker programs, in order to work in the United States. Remember the guest workers at Hershey, working in unsafe conditions and putting in forced overtime for below the minimum wage? Or what about the Wal*Mart workers who were forced to work 24-hour shifts, locked in the factory to work, and were threatened with beatings if they did not comply? The broken guest worker system in the United States creates conditions that are close to, and have even included, modern day slavery. Work visas need to be bundled with worker protections if they're going to be successful.

Third, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus appropriately called for the need for family unification in these proposals. And by "family," they meant moms and dads, dads and dads, and moms and moms. Heterosexuals wouldn't be the only people to gain amnesty. Conversely, both Obama and the Gang of 8 left this point vague, probably to appeal to the more conservative members of their base. A progressive immigration reform bill will include all kinds of families, not just the straight ones.

Fourth, all of the plans that are coming forward make a grandiose claim that new citizens need to learn English. They assume that the immigrants who come here are like young college students and can just choose English as an elective course, and effectively learn it in a few months. This is not the reality: there simply are not enough ESL programs. The demand is greater than the supply. Wait lists are five to six months long in some areas, and the lines are just going to get longer. If new immigrants are required to learn English, the government needs to put their money where their mouth is and drastically increase funding for ESL programs.

Fifth, penalizing illegal employers that exploit undocumented immigrants by paying them below minimum wage or, worse, not paying them at all is important. But instead of criminalizing the individual workers who have already been exploited, we need to create easy access to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants -- regardless of their class status or ability to pay exorbitant fines and fees. If the fees are too high, we will continue to have a shadow economy of undocumented workers.

Finally, the biggest misconception of these plans is that the elected officials incorrectly assume that getting a visa to legally work in the United States is like waiting on the drive-thru at McDonalds. For people who have been here for five, 10, or 20 years, it's not that simple. They can't go back to their home countries and re-apply for the proper work visas; and they can't wait several years as new immigrants are prioritized over people who have built their lives in this country. Simply put, there is no back of the line. So stop pretending that there is, and provide amnesty for the people who are here now.

Progressive Immigration Reform

Progressives cannot be satisfied simply with "immigration reform," but we need to ensure that the standards behind immigration reform are just and fair. We cannot accept anything less than a proposal that will keep mixed-status families together and stop criminalizing workers. Any system that doesn't take this into account will be a failure. We -- as organizers, union members, or leaders in the immigrant rights movement -- cannot support Democrats and Republicans looking to pass a bill that will have drastic negative ramifications for the immigrant community.

We need to approach reform legislation like young people approached the DREAM Act, which provides a path to citizenship for young undocumented students. The DREAM Act is based on the premise that young people did not choose to come here, but now that they're here, the U.S. needs to create a path to citizenship for them. Most adult immigrants also didn't choose to come here, but were forced here by unfair economic policies. Now that they're here, they need to have access to a path to citizenship: no back of the line, no deportations, no mass incarcerations.

In the next few months, we need to be relentless in our demands for progressive immigration reform, and we cannot be misled by border militarization and deportation proposals marketed as "reform" by those who are so anxious to make a deal that they will agree to anything. After all, Ronald Reagan, the face of modern conservatism, passed an amnesty bill in 1986. There's no reason why progressives can't do the same in 2013.