You've seen them, the ads picturing politicians crouching beside walls and fences along America's southern borders. And you've heard the words coming out of their mouths as they proudly proclaim their opposition to "illegals." As the midterm election races heat up, this travesty has co-opted what was once a bipartisan movement to rewrite outdated immigration laws. Candidates and our elected officials have traded serious debate on an issue that affects us all for cheap, meaningless photo ops and polarizing tactics designed to reap short-term gain.
Despite the candidates' rhetoric, the failure of our immigration system is not about security or cultural preservation. It is about people. By using terms such as "illegal aliens" or "illegals," political opportunists relegate human beings to a sub-species. They ask us to forget that individuals are at the very foundation of the immigration debate -- people driven by despair and inhuman poverty to make perilous journeys in search of the opportunity to create a better life for themselves and their families.
And they work hard for those chances. Thousands of undocumented workers were the first to begin the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, despite pervasive, documented exploitation. Politicians point to crimes committed by undocumented workers, but they forget to talk about the work "illegals" do throughout the rural South: They harvest our fruits and vegetables. They work in dire conditions in chicken and beef processing plants and perform backbreaking labor in our forests.
The current system leads to a devastating waste of resources. Every year in the United States, 65,000 undocumented youngsters, full of energy and potential, graduate from high school, but because of our outdated laws, they are relegated to the underclass in our society. They are kids like María Gonzalez,* who, at the age of 14, has lived in Memphis for 13 years, speaks perfect English, and although she has never known another home, will be denied any chance to enroll in higher education or to legally pursue a meaningful career.
Our elected officials seem to have forgotten that we elect them to solve problems facing our society. Instead they prefer to go on political road shows and pass punitive, visionless laws that fail to recognize the magnitude of our current immigration mess. Last December, Congress passed H.R. 4437, which sought to classify all undocumented immigrants as criminal felons. About a month ago, Congress passed H.R. 6061, which authorized the construction of a 700-mile fence along our southern border.
A fence is not going to fix our broken immigration laws. The bill is a cowardly diversionary tactic. Congress can pass a fence law, but it is incapable of building a bridge across the partisan divide, leaving us with no comprehensive immigration reform.
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed after 80 days of difficult debate in the U.S. Senate. Back then -- before gerrymandering, professional lobbyists, big money, and constant polling -- politicians debated, filibustered, and fought, but ultimately they passed legislation that improved society. Sadly, those days seem to be behind us, and the current politicization of the immigration debate -- characterized by outrageous hyperbole, manipulation of facts, and a fuzzy understanding of how the U.S. economy actually functions -- is shameful.
The Civil Rights Act debate taught us the importance of tearing down discriminatory practices as a way to strengthen our democracy. In 2006, we're literally building fences rather than focusing on the root cause of our immigration crisis, i.e. our own outdated, inconsistently applied, and unjust immigration laws.
We desperately need authentic, comprehensive reform designed to rebuild our outdated immigration laws in a way that addresses the actual source of our current crisis: the U.S. economy's ravenous appetite for a constant and cheap labor supply which has been the engine of expanding profit margins in key sectors of our economy.
In his 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. noted that an unjust law "degrades human personality" and "ends up relegating persons to the status of things." Is this not a telling indictment of our current immigration system and the political debate surrounding it?* Name changed for privacy.
Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."