Immigration Reform Is Hijacked by Xenophobia


Advocates of comprehensive immigration reform began this summer full of optimism. For the first time in years, it seemed likely that our dysfunctional immigration laws would face a major overhaul. A bipartisan bill had been introduced in the Senate and was supported by unlikely allies Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and President George W. Bush. The bill was the result of a grand compromise that aimed to satisfy opposing factions by providing for heightened enforcement of immigration laws, increased border security, and a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants. Business leaders and union leaders alike lobbied in favor of comprehensive reform. Polls showed that the majority of Americans supported legalization of illegal immigrants, provided they met certain conditions such as paying a fine and learning English. But by the end of June the bill was dead and its supporters had no faith that it would be resurrected until well after the 2008 elections.

How could a bill with such promise have been killed so quickly?

Anti-immigrant politicians and activists immediately responded to the bill’s introduction with a knee-jerk reaction against any kind of legalization-or, as they would call it, “amnesty”- for illegal immigrants. They used inflammatory rhetoric to incite an emotional response against the bill: the “illegals” were “invading” our country to take “American jobs.” Anti-immigrant groups quickly mobilized to bombard Senators with phone calls and letters in opposition to the bill. As a result, the strident voice of the anti-immigrant minority drowned out the voices of the more pragmatic and tolerant but politically inactive majority. The bill suffered its first blow on June 7 when the Senate voted against moving for a final vote. It was reintroduced in late June to allow for debate on a limited number of amendments, but the Senate again failed to invoke cloture on June 28. The Senate had once again proven itself complacent to accept the status quo.

But not everyone was so complacent. Although the power to control immigration is given to the U.S. Congress by the Constitution, the chronic failure of Congress to achieve comprehensive immigration reform has inspired both the executive branch and state and local governments to usurp some of that power for themselves.

For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently announced that it would require employers to resolve discrepancies between the names and the social security numbers of their employees within 90 days of receipt of a “no-match” letter from the Social Security Administration (SSA). Employers’ failure to comply could be punished by fines or criminal prosecution. This new DHS rule goes beyond enforcement of the immigration laws enacted by Congress; it is an attempt to change the laws and expand the statutory powers of the DHS and the SSA. That is not only my opinion, but also that of the federal district court judge in California who issued a temporary restraining order on August 31 prohibiting this policy from taking effect as planned on September 4. State and local governments have also been busy enacting their own laws affecting immigrants. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 170 bills related to immigrants became law in 41 states during the first half of 2007. That is more than double the number of bills enacted into law in 2006. With respect to local government laws, Hazleton, Pennsylvania, has the dubious honor of enacting one of the harshest anti-immigrant ordinances in the country. The ordinance imposed large fines on landlords who rented to illegal immigrants, denied business permits to companies that employed illegal immigrants, and made English the official language of Hazleton. This summer, a federal district judge in Pennsylvania ruled that the ordinance was unconstitutional because it usurped the federal government’s exclusive power to regulate immigration and violated the due process rights of both citizens and non-citizens affected by the law.

Although the decisions of the federal courts in California and Pennsylvania are reassuring, it is going to take more than litigation to stem the tide of anti-immigrant activity sweeping the nation. Those of us who believe that our country should have fair and humane immigration laws need to speak up and contact our representatives. We must not allow the debate to be hijacked by a xenophobic minority of the American public. I began this summer optimistic that there would be change and I am still optimistic. Pro-immigrant groups have been very active this summer helping immigrants to naturalize and then register to vote, so it is likely that anti-immigrant politicians will suffer during the next election for their opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. However, things will likely get worse before they better. It may take a few years of raids, deportations, and draconian ordinances before most people realize how vital immigrants are to our society and how misguided and inhumane our policies have been thus far. In the mean time, those of us who want change now will have to keep fighting and hope that someday the United States will extend a belated welcome to the millions of immigrants who continue to believe, against all signs to the contrary, that this is a country dedicated to the ideals of freedom, tolerance, and opportunity for all.

Meghan Maloney, 2L, is co-president of the Harvard Immigration Project.

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