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How Anti-immigrant Laws Carry Un-American Ideas

by Jason Jaewan Lee

As in generations past, undocumented workers face a new era of crisis, embodied in a new bill. There are no such things as illegal immigrants, just illegal institutions and laws.

It is ironic that much of the history of this nation of immigrants reflects hostility toward immigrants: the Nationality Act of 1790, which made citizenship available to only free white people; the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred immigration of Chinese for 10 years; the failure to accept refugees from Hitler's Germany; and the relocation of Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II.

Yet America has also struck down many of these laws, demonstrating that xenophobia and nativism are un-American. Which is why what's happening in Washington is so out of step with the rest of America.

Immigrants are now again in a period of crisis. The House recently passed H.R. 4437, the "Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act." The bill would deprive immigrants of due process, separate families, and criminalize the 11 million undocumented immigrants who live in the United States. The temporary-worker provision would formalize a caste system: American and "temporary other."

Children would be especially punished. Overnight, three million U.S. citizens, children of undocumented immigrants, could be orphaned with the deportation of their parents.

Bills like H.R. 4437, a version of which is being reviewed by Sen. Arlen Specter and his Judiciary Committee, not only target undocumented people. They are also directed at any U.S. citizen who safeguards the cherished American spirit of brotherhood and equality.

For example, the bill would criminalize any American who supports the undocumented, including such simple activities as accompaniment services or counseling to a battered woman. This provision would transform the work of many charitable organizations into felonies. Further, the bill would encourage social service organizations to violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says public services cannot be denied on the basis of national origin.

Fear of these anti-American proposals has caused some immigration advocates to support a lesser-evil approach - a bill by Sens. Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) and John McCain (R., Ariz.) - which also calls for increased enforcement and a new guest-worker program. Unlike the other bills, though, this one provides a pathway to legal residency for the undocumented.

Still, what we really need are more policies that address the root causes of immigration. We forget that U.S. foreign policy creates forced migration. For example, so-called free-trade agreements devastate local economies overseas - pushing workers to seek alternative employment or another country to work in.

One way to approach this issue positively is to take a fraction of the money going into beefed-up border enforcement and militarization and redirect it to programs for commodity stabilization, rural credit, and alternative-crop development in countries from which many of the undocumented come.

In the meantime, the undocumented workers deserve more than second-class citizenship. Anything short of a pathway to legal permanency is a recipe for injustice: From 1942 to 1964, Mexican farmworkers, in the United States under the the Braceros program, were deported if they went on strike. Guest workers in today's farm labor programs who do not accept abuse are blacklisted. Contract workers in American Samoa's garment factories were held in involuntary servitude.

Immigrants deserve a meaningful pathway to amnesty through legal, permanent residency. The last amnesty was signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1986. It led to legalization for more than six million - people who are now contributing to this nation of immigrants.

As the Senate takes up immigration reform next week, let's make sure that any of H.R. 4437's anti-American principles wind up in the dead-proposal bucket along with the rest of the anti-immigrant laws this nation has rejected.

Reproduced with permission from Jason Jaewan Lee.

About The Author

Jason Jaewan Lee, a native of Philadelphia, is a 2nd generation Korean American. Upon graduating from Occidental College, in Los Angeles, he began freelance writing, and community work in Philadelphia. He currently is director of community development for the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition, Inc.(SEAMAAC). SEAMAAC is a charitable organization serving immigrant and refugee communities in Philadelphia.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.