02/04/2014 03:44 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

"Comprehensive Immigration Reform": The Dead End Debate

2014 chatter about "Immigration Reform" remains superficial.

As Obama promised in his State of the Union address last week, yet again, that this will be the year that they finally pass new immigration legislation, and as reformist politicians and spirited activist circles push for varieties of tinkerings or levels of legalization, in reality, the whole conversation is yet another empty cry into the echo chamber of our legislative house. Even the pro-migrant's dream of blanket amnesty, though the right move, is nothing but a superficial "fix."

Obama focused the little lip service he paid immigration issues in his address, not on the humanity of the migrants, but on growing the economy, shrinking the deficit, and making the country a "more attractive place for businesses." Whose pockets those benefits will line and whose pockets will be turned inside out, he did not mention. Without analyzing, critiquing and fundamentally changing the push-pull factors of continued migration trends, without exposing the medieval-minded barbarity of border walls and increased border militarization, and without working to create alternatives to the dehumanizing neoliberal economic model that perpetuates the forced migration of millions, immigrants will remain in a nearly inescapable labyrinth where their exploitation will unduly benefit those outside of its walls.

The entirety of the 2013 Senate Bill (Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013) is red tape, caution tape and barbed wire meant to hold together a bundle of pork and penalties (for corporations and migrants, respectively). The very name of the superficial (really, inches-thin) bill points to the order of importance with which most politicians see immigration politics: build-up a war-zone-like wall, squeeze migrants dry of all they are seen to be worth, and then throw a meatless bone to the "liberals."

The Senate bill, as well as any other "immigration reform" bill getting traction in the media, is reactive to the status quo. There are, indeed, some important reactive fixes that we need to take to give migrants more rights and protections, many of which are happening at the state level, but if we want true change, we must change the status quo, not just try to dilute its poison.

For starters, what we need is more finger pointing. By blanketing over the injustice with rocky and castigatory paths toward citizenship, environment/community devastating border build-ups, and backward pulling concessions to political foes, we are not only punting the issue, but we are perpetuating continued forced migration and continued discrimination.

Harsha Walia, a Canadian-South Asian activist and writer, is a good example of someone moving beyond the superficial caterwauling. In her whip-smart and politically cogent book Undoing Border Imperialism, Walia works positively towards filling in the hollow immigration "debate," rightly pointing at rampant neoliberalism, the long legacy of western colonialism, and the still-thriving patriarchal and racist self-deceiving narrative with which many tell the story of modern migration. Walia calls this criminal global trend "Border Imperialism," which she explains as "the mass displacement of impoverished and colonized communities... and the simultaneous securitization of the border against those migrants whom capitalism and empire have displaced."

After admitting these self-evident (and blatantly ignored) truths, we need to lay out, in concrete terms, why, as the UN estimates, there are one billion migrants in the world, most of whom were forced out of their homes by violence or poverty.

A few examples should serve as the first flames to the necessary conflagration of the typical explanation of the issue: that superiority complex mindset that claims that migrants are choosing to immigrate to milk the system.

In this 20th anniversary year of NAFTA, which displaced millions of Mexican farmers in its first years of implementation, you would think at least one whipper-snapping congressman, or one wisened senator, would consider NAFTA as a factor in the immigration reform debate. But neither mass media, nor politicians will touch Free Trade Agreements' (NAFTA, CAFTA, the ominously impending TPP) influence on migration with a long stick. (There are a few exceptions).

The reason, which Walia lays bare in her book, is that the economic models epitomized by Free Trade agreements (free flow of capital and the discriminatory regulation of the bodies that produce the capital) depend upon and maintain forced migration, as well as its criminalization, which preserves record levels of inequality, letting the richest float to the top on the sweat and tears of those who are uprooted and toiling at the bottom.

Another (of many) unavoidable hypocrisies we need to come to terms with is our relationship to environmental destruction and its effects on pushing millions of migrants out of their homes. Walia unveils the common attitude of Western powers towards its deleterious and criminal ignoring of environmental devastation with the hackle-raising example of Australia and Tuvalu (a low-lying Pacific Island nation threatened with total submersion as global warming causes ocean levels to rise drastically): "Despite having the world's highest emission per capita at 19.6 tons of carbon dioxide per person... Australia has so far refused to accept Tuvaluans as climate refugees."

Indeed, the American Association for the Advancement of Science estimates that by 2020 there will be fifty million climate refugees throughout the world. How many of those refugees will be blocked by border walls? How many will migrate into oppressive and discriminatory societies where they are blamed for the very iniquities thrust upon them? How many will be rounded up, locked away and forced to suffer appalling conditions in private detention centers or refugee camps? The answer is far too many.

The extreme violence incited by our insatiable demand for drugs and the ineffective and racist "war on drugs" is another factor that leads to massive forced migration, and yet is almost wholly ignored in discussions on the issue. With over 100,000 drug-war related deaths and disappearances in Mexico in the past eight years, and with continued U.S.-sanctioned or U.S.-provoked turmoil in much of Central America, our doors remain slammed shut on many pushed out of their homes by the violence our own habits fuel.

The point, again, is that we need to point fingers. As Walia writes, "if we are in support of self-determination, we need to be self-determining." Which means we need to do more than half-scratch the surface. The alleged "comprehensive fixes" (conciliatory and punitive stabs and legislation) are nothing more than beating the status quo with a club. If we don't look at why and we don't try to halt our gadarene charge towards globalized, hyper-capitalism, we will continue to uproot, marginalize and oppress millions across the globe, concretizing a system of nearly feudalistic inequalities.

It is right to grant more rights to migrants living in the legal shadows. But when that right is bestowed reluctantly, decades-late, and comes with no acknowledgment of the runaway system provoking the inequality, I would say we have less than little to look forward to in Obama's promises of what he, and many others, falsely call "reform." We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to millions of migrants, to start having an honest conversation.