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One Eye On Immigration: A Singular Devotion To Passing Policy-centered Immigration Reforms

by Jason Jaewan Lee

Congress played the "immigration card" by running on restrictionist platforms and supporting enforcement-first legislations, to improve their political chances of winning last November. This strategy was not unlike the politics of both parties who manipulated the issue of Chinese immigration in the thirst for votes in the late nineteenth century. The product then was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which stayed into affect until 1943. The building of 700 miles of heavily fortified fencing between the U.S. & Mexico today is its cousin. Both laws are rooted in fear and political gamesmanship.

The Immigrant community groups interactions on the Hill indicate that the political posturing of past may be momentarily on standby for the Democratic rank-and-file, but it does not seem to hold true for the Democratic leadership in considering grassroots community groups' policy demands. What mainstream comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) advocates and legislators who support CIR in principle believe is the necessity to "sell" CIR to Republicans and "Blue Dog" Democrats.

Selling points include stepped up enforcement in the workplace that would verify worker documentation; mandated return; heavy fines; and unload civil and criminal penalties against employers for hiring unauthorized workers-in exchange for a legalization program. A pathway way to citizenship and portability in a guest worker program seems unlikely. These so-called "hard pills to swallow" are compromises that lawmakers are making behind the scenes.

The new McCain-Kennedy bill embodies these devilish details which will place more chips on border enforcement, interior enforcement, and assimilating new immigrants. The proposed bill may become so hardened that it could see its own demise-why would 12 million come out of the shadows to line up to pay a daunting fine (proposals up to $5,000) and then voluntarily return to their countries of origin ("touchback") in order to apply for legal entry to which places them at the gates of America's broken immigration system and bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, there must be a rude awakening that "compromise" is when one group is advantageously affected while another group will be adversely affected. There should not be advocacy for just proposals that inflicts injustice on others through a set of tradeoffs. As we debate and compromise, scores will continue to perish in the Arizona dessert, families will be broken up, foreign born workers will continue to earn less and continue to die or be injured on the job at higher rates than native workers. Meanwhile native workers are taking home poverty wages and facing unemployment.

How will the grassroots field respond: will there be continual fight for all 12 million undocumented, or is 3 million the dealmaker? Who is going to remain in the fight after a bill is passed or not? When will immigrant rights be linked to the larger movements towards human rights and racial and economic justice?

The community and the government must learn from past flawed immigration comprises. The 1986 Immigration Reform Control Act (IRCA) helps us understand that amnesty alone was not the silver bullet. While IRCA legalized the status of 3 million, a portion of those undocumented at the time, it left others out; it also contained failed workplace enforcement provisions; and according to the General Accounting Office, IRCA caused a widespread pattern of discrimination against eligible workers. The result of the law left us today with 12 million suffering silently in the shadows, rampant worker exploitation, and depressed wages for all workers.

Historic guest worker programs-a form of involuntary servitude-has been notoriously attributed to the exploitation. As the Southern Poverty Law Center concludes, a guest worker program is "perilously close to slavery" as employers routinely withhold temporary worker wages and confiscate their documentation. Workers would not only be dealing with labor fiats but also squeezed by the government. Under the new USCIS proposed hike in immigration fees, it would cost an undocumented family of four the principle of $26,320 to pay off penalty fees, apply for their green cards and pay for their citizenship. This would guarantee that any legalization program would catapult many into poverty.

As we witness the projected rebirth of Comprehensive Immigration Reform in early spring, we must re-commit ourselves to crafting legislation that is not driven by a political payoff or buyout. With the impending 2008 presidential race, the noblest intentions for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle around CIR could be overthrown in the name of power, expedience, and partisanship. The field, social service agencies, and legal groups expect a flood of federal funding to assist in any legalization program. "Notorios" will jump at the opportunity to make a buck off of the unsuspecting whether CIR passes or not. Instead, immigration policy should be built upon the higher principles of human rights and our national ideals. Frederick Douglass understood this when he spoke out against the Chinese Exclusion Act. It is why Millions of undocumented boldly walked out of the shadows momentarily and why scores left the Republican base last November.

We cannot write off change. It wasn't and will not be easy but this nation has been built on grace of inclusion and the declaration of building America together must continue with its just blueprint-eliminating tier systems; diminishing attacks on due process; expanding visa allocations which simultaneously promotes family reunification and ends death at the border; reducing financial and administrative barriers to naturalization; and allowing for a exploitation-proof future flow program that respects the rights of all workers by ensuring all workers are paid livable prevailing wages. In essence, any immigration reform must focus on the causes of migration and not its symptoms or political compromises. It must address the future, and whatever current immigration practices that should be undone. For if not, we honor our past mistakes.

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, and Temple University in Philadelphia he began freelance writing. Additionally, together, for the last three and a half years he has been an "intellectual worker" in the Korean, Southeast Asian, and West African refugee and immigrant communities of Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

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