The Future of Immigration

Alfonso comes from Mexico. He has a talent for crossing borders and worked temporarily in the USA a few times before settling here with his family. He has helped provide millions of Americans with things they so desperately crave -- and that infinitesimally few of us can provide for ourselves. But almost none of us would know his face because Alfonso works behind the scenes. Alfonso directs films.

In Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) drops viewers into a dystopian near future in which England's is the last remaining government and the world's women have become infertile. Anarchic violence reigns as freedom-fighters -- terrorists? -- battle the government and each other. Clive Owen, in a wonderful, subtle turn as an emotionally crushed, alcoholic bureaucrat, finds himself, as Theo, in the employ of a group known as The Fishes who want him to transport a "'fugee" girl to the coast. Yes, it's a quest film, but Cuarón's pacing varies such that this never feels like Run, Lola, Run.

Critics have showered the film with accolades, and deservedly so. Emmanuel Lubezki's camera work has some astonishing moments, and the actors -- including Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Claire-Hope Ashitey -- turn in solid performances. But the reason this "future" film works, the reason it bests, say, Minority Report is that it's not about the future: It's about the present. Granted, many films have tried to show us how our current mistakes will grow into future catastrophe -- among them the excellent V for Vendetta (which has much in common with Children of Men) and the atrocious The Island. But Children of Men, adapted from the novel by P.D. James, is much smarter and better-made than The Island and much more realistic and literal than the mostly fantastic and metaphorical V for Vendetta. That's why it's so scary. The tragedy of 2027 extends naturally from today's direction of restriction, balkanization, religious fanaticism, environmental degradation, disease, and, most vividly, immigration.

In 2027 England, armed guards hold immigrants in cages along city streets. Large screens remind citizens to "Report Illegal Immigrants". Black buses reading "Homeland Security" transport the undesirables to deportation camps. In a rather deft way, the film blends imagery of the machinery of U.S. immigration with that of the Holocaust. The deportation camp at Bexhill that the characters visit is nothing more than a recreation of the Warsaw Ghetto, a blockaded section of a town that, converted into a slum, serves as a prison. And when violence comes to Bexhill, it can't help but recall the famed uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto as the outmatched rebels, hiding in an apartment building, exchange fire with the army in the street.

For anyone who lives in or has visited the borderlands of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, or California, the rumbling Homeland Security buses packed with undocumented people won't seem a strange sight at all. In fact, minus the cages and the physically enforced ghetto (there are those who argue that we bind minorities in our ghettos economically), not much differentiates ICE now from England's Homeland Security in the imagined future. We encourage citizens to rat out "illegals"; we round up undocumented people and either bus them towards deportation or incarcerate them (particularly now that we've officially ended "catch and release"). We blame the "illegals" for all of our problems.And we do, in fact, have a form of the cages, though ours are less dramatic: ICE and DHS vehicles parked along roads and in parking lots near the border serve as mobile cages for detainees.

Just as in Cuarón's future, with our terminology and generalizations we dehumanize immigrants. We make "immigrant" a race, a breed of man, a class of undesirables. Children of Men, perhaps because it uses groups of people somewhat atypical of the U.S. immigration debate (Middle Easterners and Eastern Europeans -- and maybe some USians), hurls this mechanism back in our faces. Setting the film in the UK has the same distancing effect. By presenting us an outside perspective on a diverse world of immigrants and hinting at the disasters that drove them into exile, it reminds us that "immigrant" is just a status conveyed by chance and disaster, not an inherent nature.

In a particularly poignant moment, Theo switches into broken English to save Kee, the 'fugee girl, from a Homeland Security guard who has already thrown Mary (a Fish) off the HS bus and into captivity. This act of momentarily assuming the mantle of "immigrant" screams the term's transient and shallow nature.

But Children of Men most importantly shows us how immigration is not a problem in itself. It is not an issue. It is not a root cause but an effect of all the other disasters and bad choices we make. The real threat to our national sovereignty comes from the restriction, balkanization, religious fanaticism, environmental degradation, and disease and the way that we and our governments respond to these problems. People on the receiving end of migration have trouble recognizing that, or perhaps they think that immigration, even as an effect, should not involve them. But Children of Men shows us that it does. Because if, in 20 years, only one government still exists and chaos reigns even in the good ol' US of A, then who will be among those migrating?

As we step into 2007, we, particularly in the USA, should heed this warning. If we don't work on stopping the driving factors behind mass migrations, and if we continue to bar people fleeing problems we helped cause, we'll have a much bigger "immigration problem" on our hands.

Alfonso comes from Mexico, so he knows about these things from a different perspective. Thankfully, he has a knack for crossing borders and speaks a native language we can all understand -- cinema.

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Congressman Calls to Keep Muslims Out of USA

Congressman Virgil Goode (R-Va.) fears Muslim immigrants will destroy the USA. He recently went on the attack against newly-elected Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) -- the first Muslim ever elected to Congress -- who has drawn ire for insisting he swear on the Koran, rather than on the Christian Bible, when sworn into office. Goode sent letters to his constituents, warning them that:

"[I]f American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran. We need to stop illegal immigration totally and reduce legal immigration and end the diversity visas policy pushed hard by President Clinton and allowing many persons from the Middle East to come to this country. I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped." (From the C-ville Weekly.)

Somehow, Goode believes that trampling the U.S. Constitution and its Amendments will "preserve the values and beliefs" of this country. He makes no claims about terrorism, saying that the mere presence of Muslims in this nation will destroy it. His statements lend further credence to the idea that many proponents of restricted immigration either push their policies out of their own bigotry and preponderance for scapegoating or think that such positions will serve their self-interests, keeping them in elected office by manipulating their constituents' fears and natural prejudices.

The Washington Post reports that Rep. William J. Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) has criticized Goode, saying Goode "wrongfully equates the issue of immigration with a fear of Muslim integration in our society." That's good. But Pascrell seems to take a backhand slap at immigrants as he defends Muslim-Americans: He sounds like he's defending only his Muslim-American constituents and slighting both Muslim and non-Muslim immigrants. Does he agree with Goode that immigration in general damages our society? Looking at his voting record, probably not. But this reminds us that both our public figures and we in the media should take heed of how we speak and how we present the spoken word. At least Goode doesn't blunder on that in this case: He has defended his words as accurate.
A side note: While re-reading The Constitution and The Declaration of Independence today, I came across this among the list of grievances that justified the secession from England and its King:

"He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands."

Does this no longer hold? Have we grown enough? Do new and different people help our nation progress, or do they undermine our "traditional" culture?

(Thanks to Bill Scher at Liberal Oasis for blogging on this.)

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Maine Bends Sinister

This article from a The Bangor Daily News proves the dangers inherent in local law enforcement’s attempting to police immigration law in the course of regular duties. It seems an officer pulled over a vehicle carrying several Mexican men "after noticing a broken window" (presumably on the vehicle), which seems like a rather strange reason to make a traffic stop. Three of the men were arrested on the spot, though on what grounds the article does not make clear. (The driver was found to not have a U.S. driver's license, however that's not always grounds for arrest.) The other seven "will be questioned to determine whether they have committed an administrative immigration violation". Evidence came second to suspicion in this case -- just as some critics of local immigration enforcement worried it would. It seems that we in the land of the free and home of the brave must now carry identification papers at all times or risk arrest -- even though we don’t have a national ID. And the men are apparently here making Christmas wreaths. This sounds like a distopian novel by some morose Eastern European writer.

The article also mentions that earlier this year, the same police department made a similar batch of arrests after stopping a car that didn't have a license plate. In that case, "None of the passengers spoke English, prompting Ellsworth police to call immigration officials." Enough said.

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Raids, A Court Decision, and Romney Acts

ICE raided meat-packing plants in six states this week, targeting Social Security fraud -- not immigration violations -- among undocumented workers. Some 1,300 people found themselves detained and bused away from the plants.

According to The Washington Post:

"In a brief teleconference with reporters, Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary of homeland security for ICE, said that "the signal we're intending to send here is, 'We're serious about work site enforcement, and those individuals who steal identities of U.S. citizens will not escape action from us.' " She said the government would also pursue vendors of fake documents, former workers and legitimate residents who sold their Social Security numbers."

ICE won't target, it seems, the large corporations who hire these workers and lure people to commit ID fraud, if it continues to pursue fraud and not immigration violations. (Swift & Co., whose plants ICE raided won't be charged with anything, though it certainly lost a day of business.) This way, it can please anti-immigration camps and the big businesses who reap the benefits of undocumented workers. Only the workers lose.

An Associated Press article presents the thesis that consumers and various parts of the meat industry will suffer higher costs with elimination of cheap, immigrant labor. But a good portion of the article refutes that idea, and, indeed, claims that not much has changed in the industry from the raids -- except for the lives of the 1,300 or so people arrested.

But, again, unions have taken a stand on the side of "illegal" workers, so often accused of undermining their native-born counterparts:

"These actions today by ICE are an affront to decency," said Mark Lauritsen, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which sought an injunction in court to halt the raids and planned protests around the country. Federal agents essentially stormed plants "in an effort designed to terrorize" workers, he said. [Wash. Post]
The ACLU announced that Escondido, Ca., agreed to not enforce its new city ordinance that would ban renting apartments to undocumented immigrants -- a proposal similar to that in Hazleton, Pa. The decision comes as part of a settlement to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and other groups who argued "that the ordinance was illegal and unconstitutional on a number of grounds, including that it was preempted by federal law and violated due process and the property, fair housing and contract rights of both landlords and tenants."

It also calls into question a major issue in policing undocumented immigration: How to identify suspects without evidence already in hand? How does one identify an undocumented immigrant "in the act"? Police might pull over a driver swerving or driving too slow or too fast, observed behaviors that suggest some kind of danger to the public. But how to pull over a suspected "illegal"? What observed behavior suggests a person doesn't have papers or has overstayed a visa? Perhaps he speaks Spanish -- like millions of documented migrants and native-born U.S. citizens. Perhaps he has brown skin. Perhaps, as one local vigilante group in Calif. told it's potential members, he carries "stolen" oranges in plastic a bag for his lunch.

Undocumented immigration rarely has real witnesses (unless authorities target the purveyors of false or stolen identification) and relying on neighbors who suspect the person next door of not having papers is merely to fall prey to paranoia and xenophobia -- because the answer to how to identify an undocumented immigrant in most cases is purely by perceived ethnicity. From there stems the dangers inherent not only in locally operated immigration enforcement but in ordinances like Escondido's and Hazleton's -- and in the measure enacted by Gov. Mitt Romney (R., Mass.).

Gov. Romney, on his way out of the governor's mansion and eying the White House, "signed an agreement Wednesday that allows Massachusetts State Police troopers to detain illegal aliens they encounter over the course of their normal duties", according to The AP. The troopers, drawn from units dedicated to violent crimes, gangs, drug enforcement, and community action would receive five weeks of training by ICE before adding to their jobs new duties -- trying to bust similarly dangerous villains, like undocumented apple-pickers, nannies, and Gov. Romney's own landscapers.

As The Boston Globe reported earlier this month, the Romney family, for about ten years, has used a landscaping company "that relies heavily on workers like these, illegal Guatemalan immigrants, to maintain the grounds surrounding his pink Colonial house" and that of his son, down the street. But Romney leaves office on Jan. 4, and his Democratic successor plans to look into dismantling this new program, which now looks like little more than another politician's attempt to protect his own posterior, lunge for a higher throne, and still make no real progress on immigration.

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Some Claim Immigrants "Make Us Safer"

This article from The New York Times provides evidence that threatens the theory that immigrants, particularly undocumented ones, cause crime rates to rise. That theory lies at the foundations of many anti-immigrant laws, like the one in Hazleton, Pa., proposed after two undocumented immigrants were charged with murder. The NYT article examines the results of studies like by of Robert J. Sampson, chairman of the sociology department at Harvard, who argues that the opposite may, in fact, be true: Immigrants' determination to succeed and fit in and the traditional family values many bring with them make them more likely to be more law abiding than the native-born U.S. population. However, as immigrants produce further, more-assimilated generations, crime rates among the families rise. Is it our existing social framework that criminalizes the children and grandchildren of immigrants?

Do Immigrants Make Us Safer?

December 3, 2006

Although the midterm election failed to render a clear verdict on illegal immigration, the new Democratic Congress may enact sweeping legislation tightening border controls and allowing more guest workers next year. If that happens, the rancorous debate about how undocumented workers affect jobs and wages in the United States will be rejoined. So, too, will an equally rancorous, if less prominent, debate: Do immigrants make the U.S. more crime-ridden and dangerous?

In an age of Latino gangs and Chinese criminal networks, the notion that communities with growing immigrant populations tend to be unsafe is fairly well established, at least in the popular imagination. In a national survey conducted in 2000, 73 percent of Americans said they believe that immigrants are either “somewhat” or “very” likely to increase crime, higher than the 60 percent who fear they are “likely to cause Americans to lose jobs.” Cities like Avon Park, Fla., have considered ordinances recently to dissuade businesses from hiring illegal immigrants, whose presence “destroys our neighborhoods.” Even President Bush, whose perceived generosity to undocumented workers has earned him vilification on the right, commented in a speech this May that illegal immigration “strains state and local budgets and brings crime to our communities.”

So goes the conventional wisdom. But is it true? In fact, according to evidence cropping up in various places, the opposite may be the case. Ramiro Martinez Jr., a professor of criminal justice at Florida International University, has sifted through homicide records in border cities like San Diego and El Paso, both heavily populated by Mexican immigrants, both places where violent crime has fallen significantly in recent years. “Almost without exception,” he told me, “I’ve discovered that the homicide rate for Hispanics was lower than for other groups, even though their poverty rate was very high, if not the highest, in these metropolitan areas.” He found the same thing in the Haitian neighborhoods of Miami. In his book “New York Murder Mystery,” the criminologist Andrew Karmen examined the trend in New York City and likewise found that the “disproportionately youthful, male and poor immigrants” who arrived during the 1980s and 1990s “were surprisingly law-abiding” and that their settlement into once-decaying neighborhoods helped “put a brake on spiraling crime rates.”

The most prominent advocate of the “more immigrants, less crime” theory is Robert J. Sampson, chairman of the sociology department at Harvard. A year ago, Sampson was an author of an article in The American Journal of Public Health that reported the findings of a detailed study of crime in Chicago. Based on information gathered on the perpetrators of more than 3,000 violent acts committed between 1995 and 2002, supplemented by police records and community surveys, it found that the rate of violence among Mexican-Americans was significantly lower than among both non-Hispanic whites and blacks.

In June, Sampson and I drove out to a neighborhood in Little Village, Chicago’s largest Hispanic community. The area we visited is decidedly poor: in terms of per capita income, 84 percent of Chicago neighborhoods are better off and 99 percent have a greater proportion of residents with a high-school education. As we made our way down a side street, Sampson noted that many of the residents make their living as domestic workers and in other low-wage occupations, often paid off the books because they are undocumented. In places of such concentrated disadvantage, a certain level of violence and social disorder is assumed to be inevitable. As we strolled around, Sampson paused on occasion to make a mental note of potential trouble signs: an alley strewn with garbage nobody had bothered to pick up; a sign in Spanish in several windows, complaining about the lack of a park in the vicinity where children can play. Yet for all of this, the neighborhood was strikingly quiet. And, according to the data Sampson has collected, it is surprisingly safe. The burglary rate in the neighborhood is in the bottom fifth of the city. The overall crime rate is nearly in the bottom third.

The safety of neighborhoods like these has received little attention in the debate about immigration — or, for that matter, the debate about crime. Ever since cities like New York began cracking down on panhandling and loitering in the mid-1990s, a move that coincided with a precipitous drop in violence, policy makers have embraced the so-called broken-windows theory, which emphasizes the deterrent effects of punishing such minor offenses. Lately, though, scholars have begun to question whether “broken windows” deserves all the credit for diminishing crime after all. Some researchers have linked progress to the cessation of the crack epidemic. Others point to an improved economy, community-policing initiatives or even the legalization of abortion, which reduced the number of poor, unwanted children growing up in high-risk neighborhoods.

Sampson’s theory may be the most provocative yet. Could America’s cities be safer today not because fewer unwanted children live in them but because a lot more immigrants do? Could illegal immigration be making the nation a more law-abiding place?

There are, to be sure, scholars who take issue with this rosy picture. Wesley Skogan, a political scientist at Northwestern University, has spent the past 13 years tracking violence and social disorder in the white, black and Latino communities in Chicago. In a new book, “Police and Community in Chicago: A Tale of Three Cities,” just out from Oxford University Press, Skogan concludes that the big success story took place not in immigrant areas but in African-American ones, where participation in community-policing programs was highest and violence fell the most. “About two-thirds of the crime decline in Chicago since 1991 took place in black neighborhoods,” Skogan says. In Hispanic communities, by contrast, Skogan found that the fear of crime, as measured in surveys of residents, and real social disorder — gang activity, loitering — actually became worse as the foreign-born population increased. Skogan acknowledges that Hispanic immigrants don’t show up much in arrest records, but he says he believes part of the explanation for this rests in the fact that those who are undocumented go to enormous lengths to “stay off the radar.” Many also come from a country, Mexico, where distrust of law enforcement is endemic, which is why he suspects they underreport crime and participate less in community-policing programs, as his study found.

Sampson doesn’t deny that crime may be underreported in immigrant neighborhoods. Nonetheless, he is quick to note that as the ranks of foreigners in the United States boomed during the 1990s — increasing by more than 50 percent to 31 million — America’s cities became markedly less dangerous. That these two trends might be related has been overlooked, he says, in part because immigrants, like African-Americans, often trigger negative associations regardless of how they actually behave. Not long ago, Sampson and Stephen W. Raudenbush, a sociologist who teaches at the University of Chicago, conducted an experiment to test this idea. The experiment drew on interviews with more than 3,500 Chicago residents, each of whom was asked how serious problems like loitering and public drinking were where they lived. The responses were compared with the actual level of chaos in the neighborhood, culled from police data and by having researchers drive along hundreds of blocks to document every sign of decay and disorder they could spot.

[Article continues in comment section for this post.]

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An Addendum

In addition to the small-town laws listed in the last posting, this article from Breitbart has this description of a new law in Nevada:

"In Pahrump, a desert outpost in the Western state of Nevada with a growing immigrant population, the local council in November voted an English-only ordinance along with a measure barring residents from flying a foreign flag unless it is placed below an American flag. Violators face a 50-dollar fine and 30 hours of community service."

Using a common tongue for interacting with government of course makes sense on one level. But shouldn't Americans be free to speak whichever language they choose? Shouldn't access to government in a democracy reflect the attributes of the population? In other words, if a large portion of your population speaks Spanish, shouldn't the government use the language as well? What seems to lie at the base of these changes is basic. These laws have appeared in towns that received influxes of immigrant populations only recently, so:

William Ramos, director of the Washington office of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), said the anti-immigrant measures are more a knee-jerk reaction than a thoughtful response to community problems."

Naturally, people who have not had much exposure feel frightened and act defensively, as if under attack, when a new element enters their town. But those feelings do not excuse such un-American measures.

The flag question seems even more problematic: It is a direct attack on the Constitutionally mandated right to freedom of speech. Charging a private citizen with a crime for flying another nation's flag above or instead of a flag of this country is ironic at best and unpatriotic at worst.

But the Pahrump measures and their kin come as part of what proponents call the defense of "our" culture, this sense some hold that the USA is defined not by its declared principles of freedom, liberty, and equality but by racial, ethnic, and linguistic demographics. So, then how do we draw the line? Is this to be a white, Christian nation? If so, why did our forefathers bring millions of black "pagans" here? Do we count Jews on the inside? Asians? What do we do about the Native Americans? After we institutionalize language -- rather than letting it reflect us -- do we then do the same with race and marriage? Will the government recognize only unions between whites? In short, these types of measures do not serve even the cause attempting to curtail undocumented immigration; they seek merely to intimidate those who don't fit into the "right" box.

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Immigration Legislation Into the Future

Since last we touched on the topic here, the future of immigration legislation has been tossed to the wind by the November elections. Pro-restriction Republicans seemed convinced that their hard line on immigration was so in sync with the sentiments of the American people that it would carry them to electoral victory, particularly in the southwest and south. They may have spoken too soon.

In the months leading up to the election, candidates aiming for seats on each side of the aisle hurled forth their ideas and proposals for immigration reform, and the GOP-led Congress seemed determined to get things done. With the passage of the Secure Fence Act, Congress and the White House approved the construction of hundreds of miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border, though they did so without approving the funding needed to actually build the fence. This left many of us to wonder if all the immigration gusto was just to rustle up votes before the election. Now we’ll find out if all the hot air was just that, or if it will serve to fill the sails of some sort of change in the course of immigration legislation and enforcement -- and what tack that course will take in the soon-to-be-Democrat climes of Capitol Hill.

Will the winds dissipate now that they have outlived their political usefulness? Will they shift from the direction of restriction and enforcement-only towards legislative reform? Will the lame-duck Republicans try to finish the job they started?

The American Immigration Lawyers Assoc. (AILA) notes in a recent press release that “a giant impediment to meaningful reform of our immigration system has been dislodged.” The group’s president, Carla Tapia-Ruano, said, "The rigid, impractical position on undocumented immigration set forth by hard-liners failed to connect with voters.”

But some enforcement-only advocates claim that it was the situation in Iraq that swung the voting levers to the Democrats' candidates and not immigration, that the American electorate favors a hard line on immigration but saw Iraq as taking priority.

Still others, like the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform (FAIR), claim that Democrats took back the Hill under the steam of enforcement-only attacks on sitting Republican legislators, saying, “In countless races across the country Democrats pointed to Congress’ failure to control illegal immigration.”

Regardless of whether the election was a referendum on immigration, however, the next several months may tell whether the torrent of promises blustered about on the campaign trail will translate into legislative action once the new Congress convenes -- and what form that action will take.

But actions underway around the country continue at the local level, perhaps unfettered by national changes. On Oct. 31, a federal judge blocked the enacting of the now infamous Hazleton, Pa., law that would have forbidden renting living space to undocumented immigrants, among other things. Nov. 3 saw the filing of a lawsuit against Escondido, Ca., “charging that the city’s anti-immigration ordinance is unconstitutional and illegal under federal and state law,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). And a coalition of pro-immigrant groups has filed a class-action lawsuit in Maricopa County, Az., hoping to have declared unconstitutional a local law under which, the groups claim, over 300 migrants have been charged with felony crimes for allegedly conspiring to transport themselves across the border.

This new Congress, our 110th, must preempt more local chaos with a strong reformation of our immigration laws and processes at a federal level. Our legislators and courts have established that the Constitution mandates that control over immigration issues belongs to the Federal government alone -- and not to the whims of small-town mayors scattered across our country. Immigration concerns our national borders, and we as a nation must take strong strides towards fixing not only the system but our outlook. We must refuse to let fear cloud our good sense and bigotry to stymie our compassion. We must decide to uphold our national creeds that pledge freedom, democracy, and equality to all people, and we must enter the next legislative sessions -- and the next Presidential election -- resolute, fair, and brave as we tout ourselves to be.

[This is my most recent article for the newly remixed NYRemezcla.]

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