Fencing Justice Out 

Immigration law might work, but the hard right is still resistant.

Laws written out of fear and anger are never good laws. Very few Americans are proud of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1789, the Prohibition amendment of 1919, and the Patriot Act of 2001. All were designed to curb the rights of American citizens but especially those of immigrants.

The pending new legislation on immigration, which passed the Senate this past week, focuses on border security and control and may, or may not, become the law of the land. Just as in 2007, when the hard right blocked President Bush’s genuine attempt at immigration reform, Republican fear, anger, and intransigence in the House now threaten to undermine reform by insisting on prohibitive, unrealistic “security” measures at the border.

To placate the hard right, Congress is considering spending up to $40 billion over the next 10 years to double the current force of 20,000 border patrol agents and complete a 700-mile fence project that was begun in 2006, never fully funded by Congress, and technologically flawed. Given that most undocumented persons in the U.S. overstay some type of visa, appropriating billions of dollars for a fence is wasteful.

Additionally, over the past couple of years, the U.S. has recorded a net loss of immigrants. This is because an anemic economy and a robust deportation effort under the Obama administration, combined with the foul mood of state legislators in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, et al., have created an inhospitable environment for immigrants.

Nevertheless, billions of dollars in unnecessary fencing seems to be the fulcrum upon which any potential reform of our outdated immigration system rests and may be directly related to U.S. military drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, driving defense contractors to the border with Mexico.

Even with this giant “security surge,” many Republican legislators oppose the pathway to citizenship for undocumented persons who have been living in the United States. The vast majority of the undocumented workers have contributed to our communities and economy; many have been here since infancy and form part of the complex fabric of society. Rather than thinking of the undocumented via a one-dimensional narrative, why not look at the undocumented as human beings, workers, students, friends, neighbors? Let’s recognize their presence and value by focusing on the many contributions they make to society.

Republicans are putting up myriad barriers to prevent the undocumented from moving along a path toward citizenship. Insisting that the border be completely locked down and “secured” before anyone can move toward citizenship is a tactic designed to please the nation’s most conservative element — people who have historically opposed all programs and legislation designed to help immigrants, minorities, and the poor.

The fearful right refers to a pathway to citizenship as “amnesty for lawbreakers,” yet our immigration laws are so outdated, baroque, and unfair that we’ve pushed into the category of “lawbreaker” most people who come here without documentation or overstay a visa and who want to work in the U.S., save money, and support loved ones.

The hard right’s irrational focus on “security” and punitive policies reflects the demographic triple-bind in which they find themselves. Republicans know they’ll never win another national election without strong support from Hispanics. Republicans know that “Hispanic” is the fastest growing demographic category in the nation. They know the sun has set on the days of national political domination by white males, and so they’re in an existential fight for political survival.

The solution for Republicans is simple: Treat immigrants, legal and otherwise, like human beings, and support policies that are important to immigrants. A hike in the minimum wage, more money for public schools, better and strongly funded community health centers, money for English language classes, and public funds for day care would make for a good start.

Republicans have shown, though, that they would rather spend money on technologically dubious and expensive fence projects and 40,000 border agents.

No matter what happens — and we hope meaningful legislation emerges that can be signed by President Obama — Hispanics will remember the great Republican intransigence, the menacing, expensive fence, the fear and anger of the 2013 U.S. Congress.

Bryce Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney and board member at Latino Memphis, Inc. Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

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