By Bill Ong Hing
What if we had a real conversation about immigration reform?
We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation that loves to debate immigration policy. The anti-immigrant movement in the United States is as strong as ever. Immigrant bashing is popular among politicians, talk radio hosts, private militiamen and xenophobic grassroots organizations. They take full advantage of the high-tech era in which we live as they spread complaints about the “illegal alien invasion.” Their common thread is the rhetoric of fear. The resulting hysteria leads to tragic policies that challenge us as a moral society. ICE raids, anti-immigrant ordinances and increased detentions are manifestations of the venom, and immigrants are forced to suffer.
Arizona’s SB 1070 is an example of these results. The controversial law makes it a state crime for an alien to be in Arizona without carrying the required documents, bars state or local officials from enacting sanctuary laws and cracks down on those sheltering, hiring and transporting undocumented aliens. The intent of the legislation is to make life miserable for the undocumented in Arizona in hopes of achieving what proponents call “attrition through enforcement.” Critics charge that the law invites racial profiling and exceeds state authority.
Arizona’s law certainly has sparked debate, but not the honest discussion we need to have about immigration reform. The polarized battle over closing the border and increasing enforcement versus developing a legalization program for the undocumented leaves little room for a meaningful conversation about the needs of employers and the contributions immigrants make to the economy and society. The vitriol prevents us from getting an accurate picture of who immigrants are — both documented and undocumented — and understanding why immigrants continue to flow to our shores instead of being able to achieve their dreams at home. For example, we all know that reducing the flow across the southern border will require the expansion of the economy and job growth in Mexico. Yet formulating a plan to work with Mexico on its economy has not been part of the discussion. We should know better.
The debate over immigration provides our nation an opportunity to shed the cold side of our character and demonstrate the human values of which we are proud. The vast majority of Americans not only understand the value immigrants bring to our shores, but also believe our energy is better spent pursuing reasonable approaches that will not shame and embarrass us later. We will be better for doing so, and, with the right approach, prospective immigrants can choose to contribute within our borders or stay home. But that choice will only come about if we choose to be thoughtful about immigration reform and work closely with our neighbors.
Bill Ong Hing is professor of law at the University of San Francisco, founder of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and author of Ethical Borders: NAFTA, Globalization, and Mexican Migration (Temple University Press, 2010).