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Post-9/11 Immigration Debate Needs Shift in Focus

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Re-printed from TheGrio.com. For more on the term "illegal," watch the Word! video.

Since September 11, 2001, immigration opponents have honed their "immigrant as criminal" narrative, knowing that the specter of the foreign terrorist works perfectly.

Fifteen years ago, the nation's major newspapers refused to use "illegal" because it was dehumanizing and inaccurate. Today, the media employs the term in the context of an immigration debate in which immigrants themselves have little voice, and in which their full humanity appears to have little value.

September 11th marked a shift in the politics of race and immigration that prevents us from adopting a plan for legalization, much less overhauling our very broken system to benefit either the United States or immigrants themselves.

Currently, the Obama administration is following a purely enforcement approach to immigration, though they have promised investigation into racial profiling and human rights abuses in workplace raids and the 287(g) program that deputizes and trains local police departments in enforcing immigration law.

Last week, 500 organizations wrote to President Obama urging him to end the controversial 287(g) program. But, despite the national outcry against local officials like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Arizona official accused of rounding up Latinos and checking papers later, Homeland Security czar Janet Napolitano has expanded the 287(g) program.

While promoting our book about the organizing of New York City immigrant restaurant workers who lost their jobs at the World Trade Center on September 11th, my co-author and I met dozens of people who have suffered from the enforcement-only approach.

There were the 18-year-olds brought to the country as children who cannot now work or study legally. There was the group in Minnesota working to keep open an affordable housing complex whose best leader and his wife were carted off at 5 o'clock in the morning, leaving their 4-year-old son behind. There was a young man desperately trying to find his friend who had been taken by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to an unspecified detention center.

Immigrants do more than work. They raise families; they organize to improve life for the poor; they learn new skills and build communities. Yet, they are typically treated as expendably "illegal" even if they aren't.

Comprehensive immigration reform would leave the enforcement approach in place, while changing the status of millions of undocumented people. But a little bit of legalization won't cancel out the negative effects of enforcement. Twenty years from now, the undocumented population will grow again, and we will again debate how much legalization to offer.

The traditional pro-immigrant response to restrictionists has been to characterize immigrants as hard workers simply looking for a decent living. Though more benevolent, this narrative suggests that immigrants offer nothing more than a pair of hands available for picking, cleaning and writing computer code.

The economic argument is not the only reason we need an entirely new system. The one we have is terribly broken, especially for the vast majority of poor immigrants and immigrants of color. We need a system that eases people's movement rather than restricts it (thereby equalizing the power of immigrants in relation to their employers), one that isn't fixated on preserving some outdated notion of America as simply a white, Christian country.

Until such time as immigration reform heats up again in Congress, we must reclaim the debate and change our language. For instance, we should be challenging the criminalization of undocumented workers by labeling them "illegal." Beyond this, we need to stand up for full inclusion of immigrants in our educational, health and labor systems. The struggle includes all immigrants, including those who gave their lives at the World Trade Center on September 11th.

This piece was co-authored with Fekkak Mamdouh. Rinku Sen and Fekkak Mamdouh co-authored The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization (Berrett-Koehler 2008). Fekkak Mamdouh is the co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC)-United. Mamdouh lost 73 friends on 9/11 alongside whom he worked at the World Trade Center.