We Need Real Immigration Reform, Not More Scapegoating


In her October 6 editorial, Yeh Ling-ling correctly identifies a host of challenges currently facing our nation, including the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, dependence on a limited supply of oil, and a broken set of immigration laws. However, the solutions she proposes – including a moratorium on all immigration, denial of U.S. citizenship to children of undocumented parents (she fails to mention this would require a constitutional amendment), and a law enforcement crackdown on immigrant communities – represent a stunningly wrongheaded approach. Her conflation of undocumented immigrants with the range of policy dilemmas facing the country is misleading, and her radical ideas for immigration restrictions would only serve to deepen the all-too-evident gulf between current immigration laws and global and domestic economic realities.

In addition, the picture she paints of immigrants as leeches on U.S. society is simply not grounded in the facts. Conclusive determinations regarding the impact of immigration on U.S. workers are impossible to make, because so much depends on complex sectoral and regional factors. However, it is clear that immigrants, including undocumented ones, make enormous and positive contributions to the U.S. economy. A major Northeastern University study released in 2002 found that much of the economic growth of the 1990s was attributable to immigrant participation in the U.S. labor force. And an April 2005 New York Times article quoted the Social Security Administration’s chief actuary as estimating that 75% of undocumented immigrants pay social security taxes, an estimate that makes undocumented workers responsible for about 1.5% of total wages reported to the SSA.

It is easy to scapegoat immigrants in times of national turmoil or economic insecurity. In fact, this is one of the oldest political tricks in the book. The Chinese Exclusion Acts are one prominent example; the internment of Japanese Americans (many of whom were citizens) during World War II is another; and the Mexican bracero program of the 1940s, which grew out of the need for laborers during wartime and which ended with the mass deportation of thousands of Mexican workers in the 1950s, is yet another.

Ling-ling’s references to criminal aliens, Central American gang members, and incidents of violence on the border evoke sweeping images of immigrants as criminals and terrorists. She should be careful. The vast majority of immigrants who come here illegally do so because they know they will find work, and because they dream of building secure, dignified lives for themselves and their families. Ling-ling does not mention that many of the supposed threats to our security who have been swept up in workplace raids of sensitive sites have been contract construction or cleaning workers, like the 14 Brazilian custodians arrested at Boston Logan airport last March. Nor does she mention that DHS has not suggested that any of those picked up in these raids were involved in terrorist activities. The presence of 10 million without legal status in the U.S. poses a real national security concern, and makes it all the more urgent for Congress to develop a realistic means of bringing these people out of the shadows.

Indeed, there is growing recognition across the political spectrum that current immigration laws are simply out of touch with current domestic and international economic realities. Investing resources in enforcing a broken set of laws is ineffective and even counter-productive. Illegal immigration flows soared during the late 1990s, after President Clinton began investing unprecedented resources in efforts to control the southwestern borders in the early years of his administration. Ironically, this crackdown resulted in an even greater increase in the resident undocumented population, as many Mexican immigrants who had previously worked seasonally in the U.S., then returned home each year, decided to stay in the U.S. to avoid costlier and riskier border crossings.

While the border enforcement effort hasn’t done anything to stop migration, however, it has served to drive migrant flows even further underground and make the border region a much more dangerous place for immigrants and border patrol agents alike. Since 1994, according to official U.S. statistics, over 2500 immigrants have died along the southern border, and smuggling rings – some of which also involve drug trafficking or other criminal activity like the violence in the Tucson sector cited by Ling-ling – have flourished.

Our national economy and society are increasingly linked to those of other countries throughout the world, particularly those in the North and Central American region. The relationship between deepening cross-border economic integration (in the form of trade agreements or other arrangements) and increased internal and international migration has been well-documented in social science research. Most of the undocumented population comes from Mexico or Central America, and the U.S. has close historical, social, and economic links throughout that region. We may not be ready to move towards an EU-style arrangement which provides for the free movement of labor as part of a regional integration project. But we should not be surprised that many displaced Mexicans and Central Americans, who find themselves caught in the midst of a dramatic shift away from their societies’ traditional economic base in subsistence agriculture towards a jolting insertion into the global market, see joining family and community members already working in the U.S. as their only hope for a secure and decent future.

There are a range of complex and vexing problems facing our country at home and abroad. Developing an immigration policy that acknowledges national and international economic realities, responds to the needs of U.S. workers and employers, and reflects our commitment to human rights is one of them. But to use these policy challenges as an opportunity to paint the millions of immigrants who live and work among us — documented and undocumented alike — as a collective threat is disingenuous. It undermines our national heritage and evokes some of the most shameful chapters of our history. What we need is comprehensive immigration reform that affirms the dignity of all people and responds to economic realities- not more of the failed policies of the past.

Andy Smith (2L) and Spring Miller (2L) are President and Vice President of the Harvard Immigration Project (HIP), a newly formed student group. Please send comments to ansmith@law.harvard.edu and smiller@law.harvard.edu.

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