March 31, 2006

Building walls will not lead to progress

The issue of immigration has consumed the month of March with a ferocity no one expected. One hundred thousand people marched in Chicago. Five times that marched in Los Angeles. In states as dissimilar as Iowa and Mississippi, there have been demonstrations and counterdemonstrations. The United States Senate has stopped all other business in order to pass legislation on the issue. Meanwhile, 11 million people live and work in a country that labels them “illegal.”

As I write this, countless conversations and compromises are happening in the cloak rooms of the Senate. A vote on the legislation is expected in the Senate by the end of the week, and given that the House already passed its version in December, the bill should go to conference soon after that. The controversial nature of the issue and the pace of the legislative process dizzies the ordinary citizen to such a degree that one is left wondering: What’s actually happening?

Here’s what’s happening in the country. The unprecedented influx of undocumented immigrants into this country in recent years has finally forced not only states in the Southwest, but states all over the country to come to grips with a system that forces 11 million people to live in the shadows of our society. This historic demographic transformation is having real political ramifications. A candidate for congress in Iowa made a 1,300 mile trek south so that he could film a campaign commercial at the Rio Grande and blast the people who are apparently destroying our country.

Here’s what’s happening in Congress. In December, the House passed an immigration reform bill authored by William Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, which has to be the most controversial piece of legislation he ever authored. The bill—which I repeat, has already passed the House—would create a 700-mile fence, replete with barbed wire and guard towers, along the Mexican border. Moreover, the bill expands the definition of alien smuggling to include charitable activities by social service organizations and churches. In essence, it would become a federal crime to ladle a bowl of soup for an illegal immigrant and a felony to drive him to the hospital.

In the Senate, a bipartisan coalition led by the unlikely trio of Arlen Specter, John McCain, and Ted Kennedy is proposing a more humane bill. Their legislation would allow illegal immigrants who were in the U.S. before 2004 to continue working legally for six years provided they pay a fine and clear a criminal background check. After that time, they could become permanent residents if they paid another fine, back taxes, and learned English. Among other reforms, the legislation would allow illegal immigrants who have a high school diploma or GED and no criminal record to enroll in college or enlist in the military. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Majority Leader Bill Frist, who is being accused of using the debate as an opportunity to bolster his presidential prospects in ’08 by pandering to his base, is threatening to simply replace the committee’s approved bill with his own more punitive proposal for an up-or-down vote by the full Senate.

That is a general picture of what is. Now let us paint a portrait of what should be.

We are a nation of immigrants. I thought this was one of those painfully obvious facts that I would be scoffed at for stating, but it seems that many in Congress and in the country seem to make a distinction between those who are seventh generation and second. At its best, America has never had a need for such a distinction, and given our history, the idea that such a distinction could exist seems ignorant. The fact that all of a sudden we are interested in denying citizenship to those who want to become Americans smacks of hypocrisy and suggests a radical departure from who we are as a nation.

Of course, we need immigration reform. We need to fix a broken system that allows people to come into this country undocumented, be exploited by employers, and neither taxes their income nor gives them services. But progress never began with a wall, and criminalizing charity is never reform.

Immigration reform should tighten border security, but there are more effective and less expensive ways than building a fence longer than the distance from Chicago to Little Rock, Arkansas. Meanwhile, we need to deal with those who have already made it past our border. And deportation, for both its impracticality and immorality, is out of the question.

I am relieved that Congress is finally acting on an issue they have heretofore ignored, but I am furious that this kind of hatred is not only voiced on the floor of our national legislation but is also being commended in the homes of our countrymen. This virulent hatred for illegal immigrants detracts from who we are as a people. The rhetoric coming from many Congressmen, most notoriously Tom Tancredo from Colorado, is telling me that immigrants are destroying the country. Immigrants built this country, and they are still strengthening it today.

When we step back from the nuances of legislation and look at the larger picture, we see new Americans who simply want what all past immigrants wanted: a better life for themselves and their children. They are not asking for a free ride. They are asking for the responsibilities and privilege of citizenship. And we must give it to them.