October 3, 2003

Immigrants hurt by post-9/11 America

In the film _Dirty Pretty Things_, the main character, an illegal Nigerian immigrant in London, remarks, "We are the people you do not see." As a class of people made invisible through both draconian laws and national hostility, immigrants do thankless work and, well, aren't thanked. Public opinion generally reviles immigrants, though a comprehensive study by the National Academy of Sciences found that they contribute roughly $10 billion yearly to the U.S. economy, and will contribute $500 billion to Social Security from 1998-2022. Unfortunately, the national unity inspired by 9/11 seems now to be directed not towards giving blood, but to forcing a now near-invisible population to disappear entirely.

In the wake of 9/11, increased selective enforcement of existing immigration laws made it clear that while such laws had long been on the books, they had been amended in practice to target only Arab-American, Latino or South Asian immigrants. Much as the possession of marijuana seems only to be an offense of the poor (while celebrities and politicians may openly discuss their current or previous use with no fear of the law), so-called desirable and undesirable immigrants live under separate immigration policies. Such enforcement is blatantly racist and undermines justification for the severity with which immigration offenses are dealt. If we effectively permit behaviors to some groups, i.e. pot smoking to Ah-nold, Clinton and college students, we tacitly admit that they pose a lesser threat to society than the written laws purport. Selective enforcement guts the rationalization for immigration roundups such as those immediately following 9/11 in New York and New Jersey, now openly admitted by the Justice Department to have been unproductive and checkered by abuse.

One might argue that smoking pot while poor doesn't pose a national security threat, while overstaying a visa while Arab-American sets off FBI bells. Yet the criminalization of ordinary immigrants is, if anything, a distraction from true security, creating a sea of illegality in which terrorists can swim undetected. It also creates a class of "invisible people" who cannot turn to the law for fear of being separated from their families, and who, as such, can easily be blackmailed into silence to hide offenses far more grave. In a time when we are asked to be vigilant, to watch our bags at airports and to report suspicious behavior, it behooves us not to unnecessarily put anyone in a position where speaking to law enforcement is dangerous. The excessively severe punishments being exacted for minor visa violations do just that and do it to the populations best positioned to foil terrorist plots.

As the Immigrant Workers' Freedom Riders roll towards D.C., the second PATRIOT Act has been drawn up and may soon be debated, causing us to consider, as citizens, undergoing what the first PATRIOT Act has imposed on non-citizens. It's long overdue, but the invisible dilemmas of immigrants might gain some weight when the possibility arises of their dilemmas becoming our own.