Fear and scapegoating never create a good atmosphere in which to make or implement policy, but the nation’s current immigration policy is certainly circumscribed and now largely inoculated from any possibility of change in the near term, for those very reasons. The current Governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, and the sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, represent this turn. Both have predicated their largely popular political personas with their respective constituencies on whipping voters into deep concern about the numbers and character of illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico into their state. The Sheriff has gone so far as to say he would not honor President Barack Obama’s recent executive order offering certain (an estimated 800,000) illegal immigrants the opportunity to remain in the United States to work under specific conditions. And Brewer has suggested the President is not genuinely interested in the “flood of illegals,” but is instead pandering to Latino voters, who, generally, do not support a penalizing stance in America’s immigration policy. Governor Brewer is not alone, of course, as several other GOP governors have taken similar stands including, most notably and punitively, in Alabama. And Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has also “talked tough” on immigration during the current campaign.
This political choice has made it impossible for lawmakers of both parties—who otherwise privately acknowledge current policy is not working—to make any changes in what is broadly understood to be a broken system. Ironically, those officials fear a withering attack from groups alive with alarm about illegal immigrants taking jobs from Americans in an economy only slowly recovering from the burst housing bubble and Wall Street debacle. Even as many state, local and national elected officials incite fear and loathing of this generally politically helpless population, federal immigration enforcement agents daily raid homes and workplaces to “round-up” illegal immigrants and deport them to their native countries, enforcing current law.
Indeed, the Associated Press published an article this week highlighting the frequently tragic implications of these daily federal actions for the United States-born children of illegal immigrants. When identified as “illegals,” the parents of these youth are held in “detention facilities,” often hundreds of miles distant from their families, while awaiting hearing and deportation. Meanwhile, the detained parents’ children are moved to foster homes. Thereafter, in many cases, when the mothers and fathers are deported, their parental rights are terminated. As one might expect, those parents sent back to their home nations are frantic with worry and concern about their children with whom it is often painfully difficult to remain in touch as they undergo the personal trauma of detention and forced relocation. Few American citizens when presented with such evidence call for still more punitive measures or contend the system is working. It simply is not.
More broadly, what is lost in the current political stalemate that permits this deeply distressing scenario of scapegoating and fear mongering and broken families to continue, are three salient facts. First, illegal immigrants occupy a range of posts and occupations that typically do not place them in competition with middle and working class Americans, who do not wish to work in slaughterhouses, as farm workers picking crops, in day labor for construction, in maid service for motels and hotels and the like. Nonetheless, ambitious political leaders persist in using fear that immigrants will deny Americans jobs to press for ever-more punitive measures and/or heightened and increasingly militarized border security and protection. That is, they knowingly scapegoat a complex, hard-working and variegated population, and pretend as they do that those individuals are taking employment from US citizens. Second, and notably, the vast majority of immigrants who are detained for deportation are working, and productively so, and often for long hours at low pay and without benefits. They are not lazing about and seeking support from Americans or abusing the nation’s safety net. This suggests, too, that there is demand for such labor from US businesses. Indeed, that reality may be the most frequently overlooked fact of all. Immigrants are often viewed as desirable employees by American firms because they work so hard and for such long hours, often in difficult conditions and for low pay and few or no benefits.
Finally, as has so often been remarked, immigrants built this nation. With the exception of the nation’s African-Americans, no non-Native American US citizen can claim not to be descended from individuals who came to America to attain a better life. There is no question this nation must be able to control its borders, but it must do so fairly, humanely and honestly. Just now, United States immigration politics and policy are far from meeting any of these criteria and it constitutes a national shame to admit that such is true. The nation’s leaders need soon to overcome their own fears of the ugliness now unleashed in the land to craft a revised policy to do so.