Dreaming USA

My admonishment of S. 2611 may have been a little rash and idealistic, so let me get more specific. This bill, though not a satisfactory long-term solution, would still serve as a savior for millions of people now living in limbo and the danger of deportation -- and not only through the "guest worker" provisions.

S. 2611 includes the Dream Act, which would help foreign-born residents who have lived in the USA since before the age of 16 to adjust to permanent residence if they haven't left the country for more than 90 days, except in extreme circumstances, for five years before the enactment of the bill, if they've completed high school or a higher level of education, and if they have "been a person of good moral character". This provision is important.

Consider the case of "Samuel", who came to the USA as a small child with his family when his father was a diplomat from Cameroon. The family came on diplomatic visas, meaning legally. Samuel and his siblings grew up here, fully documented and part of the fabric of our country. Samuel developed into a fine athlete and eventually used that talent to earn a scholarship to a private high school and then admission to a major university, UMASS-Amherst.

But when Samuel was a teenager, his father returned to the Cameroon and died soon after. The family -- Samuel, his mother, and three siblings -- lost their status. The mother applied for political asylum and, if approved, could have then applied for residence for the children. But the immigration authorities were so slow in processing the case that Samuel aged-out, became too old to qualify as a dependent on his mother.

As a college student Samuel later could have applied for a student visa. But in order to get a student visa, he'd have to prove he intended to stay here only to study and then return "home". That means he'd have to show his established life and roots in Cameroon. Which he doesn't have. Because he has grown up here. In other words, our current immigration policy wouldn't give Samuel a student visa because he does not have roots in Cameroon but also refuses him residency here because it claims that he belongs in Cameroon.

Now, years since the family first came here, Samuel faces the possibility of deportation to a country he doesn't know. For all intents and purposes he is an American. He speaks English as if it were his first language, without a hint of a foreign accent. His friends and his life are here. He has been paying taxes all these years. He has contributed greatly to Amherst's community as a student-athlete, graduating this week with a degree in political science. He served two years as a captain of the Division I-AA UMASS-Amherst Minutemen (ironic, no?) football team and this year received the Coaches' Award. And he recently accepted a job as an assistant coach with the team.

He came here legally and as a child, and we would kick him out of the country? This Minuteman who has lived here for almost all of his childhood and for the entirety of his adult life?

And he's not a rare case. We have students in our schools whose parents brought them here as small children who have the brains and drive to contribute to our country, but they can't attend the schools and universities to which they gain admission because they don't have the right papers. We're missing the boat here.

The Dream Act should go through. It would serve as a savior to upstanding, talented, contributing people like Samuel who have spent their lives here. And that sounds nice and American, doesn't it? But for this version of the Dream Act to help people, the bill to which it's attached, S. 2611, has to be approved.

So, now what? Do we push for the enactment of this bill that could save many and perhaps tighten up our system? Or do we reject this bill and hope for one that provides longer-lasting solutions to our problems? Or do we take a third road through which we hope to pass this bill for now and immediately start work on a new one to improve it?


From Scott Bauer of the AP writer in Nebraska comes this interesting snapshot of immigration issues in one little piece of the heartland. The end of the article pulls together the interesting clash of people's impressions and statistics. It looks like the presence of different people give an impression of worsening conditions while the numbers don't reflect that. So do we listen to anecdotal evidence or statistical? Are we looking at this in any sort of scientific way? Are we communicating this collected data to the public?


Take it to the House

S. 2611 passed the Senate by a vote of 62-37, with two abstaining.


The Senate Nears a Decision?

Media consensus says that the Senate might pass S. 2611 (Hagel-Martinez) as soon as today, now that the Senate has approved Sen. Frist's (R-Tenn.) motion for cloture on the bill and Sen. Sessions's (R-Ala.) attempt to derail the legislation as a budget-buster has failed. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Ca.) amendment that would have completely changed the structure of the earned legalization program in S. 2611 also failed this week.

Columnist Tom Oliphant, speaking today on The Al Franken Show, calls the bill "a turkey" that "works politically but won't work in practice". He thinks Feinstein's amendment would have saved it.

S. 2611 certainly outdistances H.R. 4437, the bill the House passed in December, on the way towards a logical and just legislation. But S. 2611 does not present a workable path to legalization. Nor does it come close to satisfying immigration foes.
The bill divides undocumented immigrants into three arbitrary groups based on their length of residency here and affords each group different legal provisions. It is irrational. Rachel Swarns writes in The New York Times, that the bill would "put most illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship". That's not wholly true. Only those who have been here since before April 6, 2001, would have a path toward legal status, and, maybe, eventually, citizenship. Everyone else would have to leave either immediately or in three years. It's like bandaging a festering gash with a band-aid that's lost almost all of its stickiness and expecting it to hold until the wound heals. The undocumented population might shrink for a short time, but the lack of long-term provision with cause a re-growth soon enough. (For a deeper examination of the bill and its shortcomings, read my latest article.)

The bill also includes provisions to build barriers on the border and to back the President's plan to deploy the National Guard. And a late amendment reduced the number of foreign guest workers to be admitted annually from 320,000 to 200,000.

The bill doesn't go far enough in either direction to satisfy many people who have opinions on the issue. And that's just what will probably see it pass the Senate. But the House will put up a fight, judging from its having created a bill that focuses solely on enforcement and has no path toward legal status for the undocumented.

It seems like our legislators worry about not appearing to take action on such a hot-button topic in an election year. That's one of the reasons they voted to stop discussion on S. 2611, which sounds like a bad idea after such a short period of debate. It's a sign that appearance means more than substance here. But with such inadequate legislation on the table, despite the horrid mess the immigration system is now, it might be best if nothing passed at all, at least for now.


Actual Facts for an Actual Problem

My latest article has appeared on NYMosaico.


A New Approach

Tim Cavanaugh makes some interesting points here that I've seen reflected elsewhere as well.

Is there a substantial terrorist threat through our southern border? The practicalities of moving weapons into a legitimately dangerous position through there seem few, considering the climate and the distance to major urban areas. There has, as yet, been no public evidence of any terrorist movement out of Mexico. Regardless, walls and guns only force people to skirt detection. But allowing free -- but registered -- flow of people would mean everyone coming in or going out would do so in the light unless he had something to hide. Make the mountain come to us, as it were.

The free trade question is also interesting. Shouldn't free movement of capital and corporations come with free movement of labor (and here I include management, etc.)? Our large companies put factories in other countries like Mexico where we undercut the already poor work standards. Our multi-national corporations dominate local businesses in other countries. Our dominance forces people to come to our borders, not only because of opportunity here but because we help quash opportunity in other countries.

I'm not necessarily a proponent of unbridled trade. I think it holds dangers in allowing elephantine corporations to run about unrestrained with profit as the only concern and human rights and the environment as the grass that gets trampled. But it seems irresponsible for us to create a situation of free corporate migration and then refuse to accept the consequences of our actions, including human movement for economic purposes, especially when many of those migrants would choose to return home after a time, relieving the "burden" they place on our society, an option they lack now because of the difficulties of crossing borders.


Black-and-White and Grey All Over the Red, White, and Blue

A few weeks ago I flew into Palm Beach International airport and caught a ride with the driver of a private car whom my grandmother calls every time she flies down to the West Palm area. Cindy is a sweet and amiable single mom, who immediately started informing me about the research she had done that resulted in her deciding to not let her 11-year-old son attend a birthday party where the kids would be seeing Scary Movie 4. That made sense: The film is rated PG-13. Then we launched into one of those discussions that reminded me of the wide range of mentalities in our country.

Cindy told me about the discussion she'd had the day before with my father -- who is an immigration attorney -- about the issues over migration to the USA. Cindy's opposition to further immigration stemmed mainly from the principle that we have laws and those who break them are criminals and should be punished. That, of course, sounds right. We are a society of laws, as the anti-immigration folks like to say.

But problems often arise from our mental approaches to our law.

"I see things in black and white," Cindy told me.

That's fine, I said. But that's not how our laws work. Our laws do not see things in black and white -- at least not on a large scale. Our laws form a complicated, nuanced, breathing document. If our law were not complex and detailed, why would we have highly-selective schools that provide study in law alone? Why then a bar to which our lawyers must earn admittance?

Undocumented immigrants are not criminals. They have violated civil law, not criminal law. And I'm not debating semantics here. Language has played a monumental importance in our laws since the writing of Genesis in which God uses words to create the universe. Legislators (in theory), lawyers, and judges spend lifetimes debating specific diction. In the service of justice and its application we must take care with specifics.

A civil infraction differs greatly from a criminal one. We don't have two simple categories of "law-abiding people" and "criminals" (read: "good guys" and "bad guys"). Our laws aren't that black and white because our world is not that black and white. (I say that despite the dichotomous Cold War mentality that has arisen since the hawkish mobilization of our minds after 9.11.01.)

Cindy also referred to legal provisions that allow for admission to this country as "loopholes", as if any acknowledgement of detail or gray area were a trick or manipulation. Her perspective reminded me of reactions to the presidential debates during the 2004 election. Opponents of Sen. Kerry criticized him for seeming to smart, too detailed, and too good at debate. They felt he was attempting to manipulate them; they thought him slick and dishonest because he focused on nuances and would not admit a black-and-white solution to every problem.

Part of George W. Bush's charm has been an adherence to vastly oversimplified, black-and-white opinions. He's a straight-talker, shoots from the hip, sticks to his guns, and other such cowboy clichés. That's comforting to many people. Our natural fears often lead us to crave a clear, stable, understandable world. It gives us a feeling of control and power. That's nice. It's also not real.

The real trickster in the 2004 debates was Pres. Bush who presented an oversimplified front to complex issues in a way that comforted those who, like Cindy, "see things in black and white". In doing so he masked the truth about such complicated issues as the war on terror and the economy. He manipulated those who trusted him. A simple version of the truth often has the same effect as a lie.

That's why we must do as Cindy did when looking into Scary Movie 4 and as she agreed to do by the end of the immigration phase of our conversation: We must recognize that we live in a grey universe. And when deciding our opinions and our public policy we must research; we mush hound for detail and nuance; and we must think. That will lead us to the truth. Governing from the gut sounds easy, but dealing with the consequences of such action isn't.


Se Habla Inglés

On Thursday, the Senate passed two amendments on language to S. 2611, the first, "To declare English as the national language of the United States and to promote the patriotic integration of prospective US citizens" and the second, "To declare that English is the common and unifying language of the United States, and to preserve and enhance the role of the English language," which is a slightly softer measure than the first. (These provisions would not apply, however, to already existing practices. )

Why pass these measures now when there have been minor factions trying to pass similar actions for years? As of now, English has never been the official language of the USA. We have never had, legally, a national language. It's xenophobia, if not racism, taking form in a "patriotic" slap in the face to anyone who speaks a language other than English as their primary tongue.

We use English because of immigration patterns. People who spoke English immigrated here and proliferated the speaking of the language when the existing population spoke, for instance, Creek. Those who now decry the widespread use of, for instance, Spanish in our homes, businesses, and government offices blame it on immigration patterns. They're right. So, it's okay for English to grow because of immigration patterns, but it's not okay for any other language to grow for the same reason. That smells like hypocrisy.

The new amendments state that "no one has a right to federal communications or services in a language other than English except for those already guaranteed by law", according to The Washington Post. Consider the chaos this might enact within the immigration system alone, not to mention other points of contact between the government and the people, the Social Security office for instance.

For a country that has such an appalling reputation in terms of learning other languages, it seems largely mean spirited and hypocritical to demand speakers of other languages reach such high standards in our predominant language that they could navigate our government services and regulations -- which is hard enough for native English speakers.

We don't need to offer government services in every language under the sun. That's impractical. But leaving the system open, as it is now, to allow for access in several widewpoken tongues is not only more practical but morally correct.

Even a legal requirement to learn English won't create a fluent population overnight. Learning a new language, as too few of us know, is difficult. It takes years to reach a high enough level of proficiency to engage in debate and understand official phrasing and diction. These new amendments will therefore decrease the efficiency of government processes as new English speakers struggle through without help.

Why not allow this to take its natural course? English is not in danger of losing its stronghold here, nor does speaking another language detract from loyalty to this country. This wasn't broken, but a spirit of bigotry threw some rocks at it to fix it.


The Senate's Wild Ride

The last few days have brought some excitement to the Senate, from decisions on amendments to S. 2211, the front running immigration bill, to a screaming match between Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

First, let's talk immigration. One amendment that passed this week attached provisions for building several hundred miles of barriers along the USA-Mexico border. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) justified this by recalling the cliché "Good fences make good neighbors." That sounds nice, but remember the Berlin Wall?

Another amendment mandates that, in order to apply for relief under the so-called "temporary worker programs", an immigrant would have to convince an employer to sponsor his application. Now, that is part of the current procedure for applying for a visa through a labor certification, so perhaps it's not without precedent. But the problem comes because undocumented workers under the whim of unscrupulous employers face a danger in attempting to apply. An employer already using -- and abusing -- the labor of the undocumented might not move so quickly to help an employee legalize his status since he'd then have to conform to standards of U.S. labor, meaning higher wages, benefits, and workplace standards. Employers might not only refuse to sponsor a worker but fire him or simply turn him in to authorities out of spite-- and replace him with another, more servile undocumented worker. One of the major reasons for creating a path to legalization in the first place is to help workers escape the oppressive whimsy of abusive employers and thus stop the undercutting of wages that helps the undocumented beat out the documented for jobs. That serves the interests of not only undocumented workers, but of local unions and documented U.S. workers and citizens as well. This amendment takes a bite out of the bill to which it is attached.

Second, a quick note about the Feingold-Specter fight. It happened as the Senate Judiciary Committee met in a different room, closed to the public and away from its usual meeting place to decide on an amendment to refuse the states' the abilities to recognize gay marriage. It seems Feingold objected to not only the fact that his colleagues were passing an amendment he rightly feels violates the U.S. Constitution but also the somewhat clandestine nature of the vote. He seems especially justified, considering the same Senators questioning CIA chief nominee Gen. Michael Hayden in one room about the NSA's operating opaquely were themselves operating opaquely in a second room.

President Bush's Immigration Address

The President's speech on Monday has received derision from people on every side of the still-escalating national debate on immigration -- and deservedly so. Perhaps Pres. Bush displayed what some might term an attempt at compromise. But it might just be political pandering, attempting to toss bones of appeasement to folks on both sides of the aisle to pump up his approval ratings. However, the speech did contain some ideas of merit. I was particularly pleased to see his clarification of the term "amnesty", which anti-immigration advocates (including mainstream commentators like Lou Dobbs) staple to any sort of plan to improve the legal venues to immigrate to the USA.

But Bush made sense: "[W]e must face the reality that millions of illegal immigrants are already here. They should not be given an automatic path to citizenship. This is amnesty, and I oppose it....Some in this country argue that the solution is to deport every illegal immigrant -- and that any proposal short of this amounts to amnesty. I disagree....There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant, and a program of mass deportation."

And then he lost his sense again: "That middle ground recognizes that there are differences between an illegal immigrant who crossed the border recently and someone who has worked here for many years, and has a home, a family, and an otherwise clean record."

Of course differences exist between those who are more settled here and recent arrivals, and we must recognize that immigrants, undocumented though they may be, have lived here for long enough and joined our society to enough of an extent that they are, for all intents and purposes, permanent residents of this country. However, a new law based in that principle which requires newcomers to leave -- such as the Hagel-Martinez "compromise" bill in the Senate -- does not provide a plan for the future. Even if we believe the very dubious claim that further militarization of the border and crackdowns on employers who hire undocumented workers will eventually cut off all undocumented immigration (which they won't) enforcement agencies would be playing catch-up continually.

We must have an ongoing policy for a path to legalization. The problem is not just the undocumented population already here. Just as big of a problem is the arrival of those who will attempt to enter next month, next year, five years from now. And they will come. Even those who have been deported will come back. They need to. It's a matter of survival. We need to accommodate for that. We need a yearly visa quota that fluctuates with the demand of the market, meaning that it would be based in reality and not in arbitrary numbers set to serve political ends.

The President's proposal won't do it, though his justifications for the worker program (family unification, boons for the U.S. economy, the USA's history as an immigrant nation, etc.) are right. The "temporary" in Bush's "temporary worker program" refers to the program not the workers. The plan in Hagel-Martinez provides only a short window during which immigrants can apply for legalization -- and Bush calls for the application window to exist only "for a limited period of time". And, considering the efficiency of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS), hardly anyone will make it through, and we'll be back to square one, with a large undocumented population.

But the most troubling -- and perhaps most telling -- part of the President's speech came in this statement: "The United States is not going to militarize the southern border." Why is this statement so important? Because he had just finished outlining his plan for militarizing the southern border: "By the end of 2008, we will increase the number of Border Patrol officers by an additional 6,000....We will construct high-tech fences in urban corridors, and build new patrol roads and barriers in rural areas. We will employ motion sensors, infrared cameras, and unmanned aerial vehicles to prevent illegal crossings.... [And] up to 6,000 Guard members will be deployed to our southern border."

I don't believe in wide-open borders. We should of course maintain a vigilant force against drug smugglers and terrorists -- you know, actual criminals. But we shouldn't need much more than we have now to regulate immigration. The problem is not that we don't have enough guns and walls at the border. The problem is that our legal venues for immigration are inadequate, irrational, and dysfunctional. If they weren't the number of people entering the country without proper documentation would be much smaller than it is now. People don't cross three days on foot in the desert with their small children -- or sealed in a truck -- because it's fun or because they're bad apples who like to break the rules. The do so because we give them no other choice.

Further militarization both on and within our borders will serve only to terrify the undocumented and keep them from stepping forward to attempt to normalize their statuses. They know far better than we how biased and inefficient USCIS is. If Bush's plan -- or either of the two before the Houses of Congress -- becomes law, the combination of oppressive enforcement, punitive criminalization, no real, viable path to legalization for those already here, and no system reform to account for those yet to arrive will only increase our undocumented population and decrease the rights of all of us who live within these borders.