Immigration Reform: We Can Do Better

In the last few weeks, a lot has been happening in the great American conversation around immigration. A federal court struck down SB 1070, Arizona's "get-tough-on-immigration-because-the-Obama-administration-won't-do-diddily" law. Several prominent Republicans have started campaigning against the 14th amendment to the United States' constitution, which, among other things, grants citizenship to any person born in the Unites States. Then, in the second week of August, both the House and Senate passed an emergency spending bill that will send 600 million dollars to the US border. The money will pay for 1500 border enforcement personnel, it will support the overburdened court system, and it will provide for the monitoring of the border by unmanned aircraft.

Count mine among the Americans who wish to see Washington do something about undocumented migration across our southwest border -- not because undocumented persons are harming our nation (they're not; in fact the United States benefits from illegal immigration), but because each year hundreds of good people die trying to cross our borders. People have been migrating across the landscape now bisected with an international border since long before either the United States or Mexico existed, and they're not going to stop now. The poverty in Mexico is too extreme, and the economic opportunities north of the border are too alluring.

Rather than laws that will encourage increasingly dangerous (and fatal) border crossings, we need measures that will keep people safe, will promote economic vitality on both sides of the border, and will enable those who work in America to move freely back and forth across the border.

To that end, I have identified five elements that I feel must be included in any morally responsible immigration reform bill. I came up with these elements after spending a lot of time studying the issues, visiting the US/Mexico border, and interviewing dozens of people from many different walks of life for my soon-to-be-released book, Neighbor: Christian Encounters with "Illegal" Immigration.

  1. The United States Government must provide visas for seasonal work, particularly for people working in the agriculture sector. Issuing visas for seasonal work would likely have the effect of decreasing the number of immigrants from Mexico living permanently in the United States because with visas, workers could return to Mexico at the end of each season and not feel compelled to move their families north. While writing my book, I found I shared this conviction with liberals and conservatives, Mexicans and Americans, nearly everyone I met who is knowledgeable and wise about immigration matters.

  • Families should be kept together. Current laws that separate mixed-status spouses or that deport parents, separating them from their children, should be changed. When parents are deported, leaving citizen children without a mother or a father, no one benefits.
  • Children brought across the border by their parents should be treated differently from adults who immigrated alone, even after those children are adults. Under current immigration law, adults who came to the United States as children are treated exactly as if they themselves had made the decision to immigrate. If they lack documentation, they live under the constant threat of deportation, and in many states they are denied drivers' licenses, seriously hampering their chances of finding meaningful work. Even if they are legal residents, they face the possibility of deportation even for relatively minor offenses.
  • The border fence should be left to rust in the desert, or, better yet, uprooted and sold for scrap. If it would do any good, I'd stand by the fence that now runs along the border from the Pacific Ocean to the Rio Grande, and I'd declare with every possible ounce of conviction "Mr. Obama, tear down this wall!" The fence is not necessary -- our nation's southern border already runs through a mountainous desert which provides excellent border protection and national security, and makes the fence redundant. Also, at a cost of more than a billion dollars, the border fence is a ridiculous waste of money and, often, a tragic waste of human life. The wall doesn't keep people out of the United States; it just encourages people to cross the border in increasingly dangerous places. Besides, as expensive as walls and fences are to build and maintain, ladders are cheap. So are shovels and hacksaws. The only people who benefit from the wall are politicians whose constituents like easy answers to complex issues.
  • I firmly believe that the movement of goods and services across the border should be controlled. Duty fees must be collected and contraband must be stopped, but the best way to control the flow of people is with economic development south of the border and with enforcement north of the border that targets not the migrants themselves but businesses that hire undocumented persons.
  • My opinions are not unique to the progressive community in the United States, nor are they original to me. I heard variations on these themes everywhere I went in the United States and Mexico researching my book. This is not to say that everyone in the United States and Mexico agrees with me -- not even close -- but when discussions around immigration are educated, thoughtful, and are separated from fear, prejudice and xenophobia, consensus starts to appear and that consensus looks an awful lot like the five points I've made above.

    It's time for our leaders to pass comprehensive immigration reform and to do so in a way that fuels the economy, protects families and children, saves lives, and is rational and enforceable. I believe America is good enough, strong enough, and creative enough to make an immigration policy that works for all of us.