Editor’s note: Eight months ago, in part as a response to Arizona’s enactment of a law requiring its police to ask anyone they think might be here illegally (read: Mexicans) to produce proof of legal status, Village Voice Media embarked on an extensive national immigration project. It tasked VVM papers across the country with telling the stories of the Hispanics amongst us, to put a human face on their moral, legal, personal, and political perils as they confront the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment seeping into the American political scene.
Through 26 features, columns, and news shorts, both in print and online, one common theme resonates: Abuses are rife because federal authorities lack a coherent immigration policy.
This story, “Return to Sender,” examines the opposing forces at play — liberal, conservative, extremist — that can influence comprehensive immigration reform, something our country desperately needs. To do it right will require good governance from a nation that at times seems ungovernable. To do it wrong or not at all could lead to our undoing as a nation of immigrants.
At every point on the political compass, Americans agree that something needs to be done about the nation’s policy on undocumented immigration. The problem is what to do with the immigrants themselves — an issue people from left to right consider urgent. The longer Congress fiddles, meanwhile, the more the state legislatures burn.
In the first half of 2010 alone, legislators in 44 states introduced 319 bills addressing immigration issues, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the second half of the year, as many as a dozen states took up bills directly fashioned on Arizona’s tough Senate Bill 1070, using local police powers to push out undocumented immigrants in a process sometimes called “self-deportation.”
The discourse at the state level can be wild and woolly. Debbie Riddle, for example, is the Texas legislator who went on Anderson Cooper 360 in August warning of a plot by immigrant mothers to give birth to “terror babies” — children born here with the specific aim of training them to be secret agents.
Riddle told Cooper that “former FBI folks” whom she declined to name had warned her of a terrorist conspiracy involving foreign babies. She said the plot involves “folks coming over here having their babies when they are not here legally, or they might have overstayed their visa, whether they are coming from south of the border or whether they are coming from Middle-Eastern countries.”
Pressed by Cooper, Riddle seemed to conflate the baby threat with dirty bombs from outside the United States: “It is altogether possible to make a dirty bomb,” she said, “stick it in a suitcase, walk it across our southern border, and take it to downtown Houston or any other city and blow it up and kill a million or more folks.”
At that point, even the usually aggressive Cooper seemed to lose his appetite for further detail.
But Riddle was only hitting her stride on the Anderson Cooper show. After the November 2 election, she camped out on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives in Austin for an entire weekend so that she would be first in line when the House opened for business Monday morning. The minute the chief clerk opened his door, Riddle handed him a bill that was a direct copycat of Arizona’s SB 1070, based on “enforcement first,” with no eye toward integration or citizenship.
She also introduced a bill denying the right to vote to American citizens who fail to produce required photo identification cards. (The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals already has ruled that Arizona cannot require proof of citizenship for voter registration, but it let stand a part of the state law that requires voters to produce photo identification at the polls.)
Later, Riddle bragged on her Web site that she had “created a media frenzy.” Describing her weekend outing, she said, “A visitor that walked by told me that I reminded them of the kids that camp out for Duke basketball tickets in Durham, North Carolina.”
Compared to Riddle’s exuberance, the case for comprehensive reform is numbingly complex and frustratingly diffuse. But that has a lot to do with the incredible breadth of the coalition behind an integrative approach as opposed to those who propose massive deportation.
Anderson Cooper can do all the deadpan he wants. And yet it’s the Debbie Riddles who are in the driver’s seat on immigration — a stunning reality, given the breadth and depth of the forces arrayed against them in favor of comprehensive reform and full legal status for the undocumented millions amongst us.
Consider the National Immigration Forum, whose mission is to “embrace and uphold America’s tradition as a nation of immigrants.” Its board members represent the Catholic Church, the Baptist Church, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, major employers, and big labor, along with policy groups of both liberal and conservative stripe.
The urgent need for national immigration reform is uniting what otherwise might be strange bedfellows. In April when Arizona passed SB 1070, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce went to court against it, arm in arm with one of the country’s most powerful unions, the Service Employees International Union.
And it’s not just interest groups and factions who favor a resolution that does not involve mass deportation. Opinion polls have found strong support — in the 80 percent range — for controlling the borders and integrating the immigrants already here into lawful society. Mass expulsion, whether by deportation or harassment, is in the approval ratings basement, at more like 25 percent.
In spite of all that, the advocates of integration are foxholing for a bitter fight in which they admit their best hope is to stave off a surge for mass expulsion when the new Congress sits next year, given its anticipated tenor after the full effect of the mid-term elections takes hold in January.
Before the midterms changed everything, the aims of moderates came down to four things, all expressed in bills introduced but not passed in the last session of Congress by Senators Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina; Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey; and Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York.
First, the moderate reformers were seeking and still want real workplace enforcement so that employers will not be able to hire people who have not signed up for legal residence.
Second, advocates want serious enforcement of entry laws at the border and away from the border, with focus on the horrors of human trafficking. As it is now, even when the coyotes who smuggle immigrants in across the southern border do get caught, they receive get-of-jail-free cards from U.S. Immigration Enforcement, which quickly deports all of the key witnesses. On November 11, Village Voice Media revealed that a Colorado crackdown on traffickers had produced only 87 indictments since an anti-human-smuggling law was passed in 2006. The vast majority of those cases ultimately were dismissed for lack of evidence.
But it’s not all about illegal crossers. The third plank in the reform platform is a call for a good way into the country for legal immigrants — a pragmatic guest-worker program that meets the needs of industry, a rational visa system for highly qualified sought-after immigrants.
Last and not at all least, people seeking comprehensive immigration reform want to create a path to full, legal, taxpaying status and accountability for the law-abiding majority of the 11.1 million people estimated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to be in the country without proper authorization.
The Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan research group, estimates that 60 percent of the 11.1 million are from Mexico, another 20 percent from other Latin-American countries.
Think of the essential piece in making it all work as a coin. First side: Give people an incentive to come out of the shadows and sign up for citizenship. Second side: Create a bulletproof ID system to show who has signed up and who has not. The Schumer bill, in particular, calls for a high-tech Social Security card with a computer chip that can’t be faked.
But these kinds of solutions — perhaps because they are pragmatic and wonkish — are all the more infuriating to people like Riddle who regard the presence of the undocumented as a call to arms, not a call for more computer chips.
In the recent midterm congressional election, anti-immigration forces sang a song with two verses — immigrants are crooks, America is for Americans. Candidates including Governor Jan Brewer; Sharon Angle, the Republican who ran unsuccessfully for Senate from Nevada; and Tom Tancredo, an independent who was defeated in a bid to become governor of Colorado, portrayed undocumented aliens as criminals.
Together they worked to bond permanently any form of legal status for undocumented people with the term, “amnesty.” Amnesty — a kinder, gentler word under Ronald Reagan — was used in the midterm campaigns to mean letting dangerous criminals off scot-free. And, put that way, nobody likes the idea. Instead, having defined unauthorized immigrants as crooks, the advocates of expulsion want them gone, all 11.1 million.
The cost alone would be staggering. The Center for American Progress, a research group with close ties to the Obama administration, used numbers from the Department of Homeland Security to estimate that the cost of deporting the 11.1 million would be $285 billion — twice the 2009 costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.
Worse than the dollar cost, pushing 11 million people out of our midst would look to the rest of the world like a chapter from the Bible, and not one of the good chapters.
And yet the balance seems to have shifted toward expulsion. Angle and Tancredo may have lost in the November 2 election, but a consensus among insiders is that the animus they represented won. Frank Sharry, founder and director of America’s Voice, a liberal immigration advocacy group in Washington, says: “The House of Representatives is now in the hands of radicals who will run the immigration policy. There’s no way around it. And they’re going to be able to pass anything they want.”
Sharry’s best hope is that the Senate, still controlled by Democrats, will serve as “the firewall that stands up to the radical shit coming out of the House.”
The same general gloom can be heard from more conservative employer-group advocates for reform. Craig Reggelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR), which represents employer-farmers, paints a grim picture:
“The solution we stand for and we have been working on with Congress for years,” he says, “is a negotiated compromise that the chief labor union in agriculture and the employers all support, but the debate has grown more and more dysfunctional.”
Dysfunctional is not necessarily code for Republican, but it could be for Tea. Immigration reform as expressed in the Schumer bill has strong support from many Republicans, who point out that former President George W. Bush came closer to getting a decent bill passed than has President Barack Obama.
The nail-biting is over the new Tea Party-tinged members of Congress who ran on kick-’em-out platforms. Two in particular will have solid control of immigration reform when the new House is seated in January. U.S. Representative Lamar Smith from the San Antonio area in central Texas will become chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Representative Steve King from western Iowa will be chair of the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law, making the pair the House’s two main gatekeepers for immigration law.
When Sharry talks about radicals in charge of the House, he means these two. Of Smith, he says, “What he calls attrition through enforcement is a strategy, to be blunt, approaching an American version of ethnic cleansing.
“We’re going to expel millions of these Latino immigrants who have been here a long time. They may have violated immigration law to get in, but they have been otherwise law-abiding, hard-working family people, two-thirds of whom have been here for more than a decade, 70 percent of whom are in family units. We’re going to make life so miserable for these people that they are expelled from this nation of immigrants.”
Smith gave a written statement in response to questions about his plans: “The Judiciary Committee should enact policies that will better secure our border and discourage illegal immigration, human smuggling, and drug trafficking,” he said.
He concluded with an appeal to anxiety and action: “American citizens should not have to fear for their lives on U.S. soil! If the federal government enforced immigration laws, we could better secure the border and better protect U.S. residents.”
King wants to start the expulsions by hitting the softest targets — the children of immigrants. His public pronouncements on immigration have centered on a proposal to amend the Constitution to take away the guarantee of citizenship provided in the 14th Amendment for children born in the United States to foreign parents. King also wants to strip these kids of any social safety net.
In a statement on his House Web site, King says: “Many of these illegal aliens are giving birth to children in the United States so that they can have uninhibited access to taxpayer-funded benefits and to citizenship for as many family members as possible.”
This view of illegal aliens — Latino moochers rushing here to procreate, get on the dole, and teach their kids to be terrorists — conflicts with the data. For one thing, Latino immigrants stopped rushing here when the American economy hit the skids in 2008.
More to the point, Latino immigrants — legal or undocumented — are more likely to get jobs and work for a living than native-born Americans. A 2006 U.S. Census study found that more than 68 percent of working-age people of Mexican origin are working as opposed to 65.7 percent of all Americans. People of Central American origin make most Americans look like they’re on permanent siesta: More than 76 percent of working-age Central Americans in this country earn a living by working, the study found.
The best evidence in favor of the Latino immigrants is in the outcomes achieved by the wave of them accorded amnesty under Ronald Reagan. A July 13 VVM story provided a gallery of examples of immigrants granted amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 who have gone on to become esteemed and productive members of their communities at all levels of the socio-economic ladder. It’s a story reflected all over America, wherever those families took root after gaining citizenship.
Perhaps that’s why the ardor for expulsion is not shared by a majority of Americans, almost 80 percent of whom want to see something done to normalize the status of undocumented aliens in the country, according to a New York Times poll last May.
A poll in early November, paid for by America’s Voice, came up with similar numbers, including almost 80 percent support for steps that would keep undocumented aliens here by culling out the criminals, making the rest legal, and putting them on the tax rolls — which seems feasible even under laws now in effect. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently announced that her agency removed 392,000 undocumented aliens from the country in fiscal 2010, including a record 195,000 convicted criminals.
The best hope of moderate reformers is that the expulsion issue can be locked up in a congressional stalemate until something happens to make it and its proponents go away, presumably in the election of 2012. That’s a lot to hope for.
These reformers base their Hail Mary hope on a prediction that Republicans, fearful of a backlash in 2012, will muzzle the extremists in their party. Immediately after the midterm election, a number of moderate reform and Latino groups brought out exit-poll data to show that anti-immigrant racism of some Republican campaigns had forged a strong Latino backlash against Republicans. Now Latino leaders are predicting trouble for Republican candidates in 2012, if the GOP stays in step with Smith and King on immigration.
Eliseo Medina, the SEIU’s secretary-treasurer and a national figure in the moderate reform movement, is almost exuberant: “The good thing from my point of view,” the union leader says, “is that the Steve Kings and the Lamar Smiths, the Tom Tancredos, the Governor Brewers are the very best organizers I could ever hope for.
“They have done what César Chávez and a generation of Latinos could not do. They have, in fact, united the Latino community in this country like nobody ever could.”
Even some worried conservative Republicans share this view. Linda Chavez, author, Reagan White House staffer, and Fox TV analyst, says the racist TV ads are pushing away a constituency that would otherwise be valuable to Republicans in 2012 — one that is growing fast in both raw numbers and political engagement. It’s a trend that could damage her party in 2012. Chavez says Republicans “are shooting themselves in the foot, because a demographic shift is taking place.”
The hope, then, is that Republicans will take a leaf from Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and move their troublesome relatives to the attic. But things could go the other way.
A week after exit polls paid for by more moderate immigration-reform-advocacy groups showed strong Latino support for Democrats in the midterm election, other respected national polls showed that Latinos had trended more Republican this year than in the 2008 congressional elections, by as much as 5 percent. So how is that trend supposed to frighten rambunctious Republicans?
In fact, there is enough uncertainty about Latino voters and 2012 to prompt this line of questioning: What if the 2012 election does not fall to the side of moderate reformers? What if it goes the way of Lamar Smith and Steve King? What will the U.S. House look like then?
That’s easy. Like Texas.
Whatever the midterm elections did to Washington, multiply by 10 and you’ll have a fair guess what Texas will look like when its new legislative members are seated next year in Austin. In the last session, Republicans had a four-vote lead in the 150-member Texas House. Next year their lead will be more than 50 votes, a “super majority” under House rules, meaning Republicans in the Texas House will barely have to say hello to the remaining Democrats, let alone consult them.
On immigration issues, some of the Republicans in the Texas House will make Smith and King look like bow-tie liberals. For example, State Representative Leo Berman, a six-term Republican from Tyler, will be Debbie Riddle’s chief rival for immigrant crackdown leader. In fact, he was almost certainly the one she hoped to beat by camping out on the House floor.
Berman and Riddle will competitively push Arizona-like laws to require immigration enforcement by local police, bills to deny citizenship to children of undocumented aliens, bar undocumented aliens access to civil courts, cut off all state funding to cities that fail to expel undocumented aliens, forbid state agencies to provide services to children of undocumented aliens, levying an 8 percent tax on all money sent to Mexico, Central America, or South America, and a law making English the official language of Texas.
Berman’s signature work in the area of citizenship will be his bill requiring candidates for president or vice president of the United States to present their own birth certificates to the Texas Secretary of State before their names can be placed on the ballot in Texas, thus assuring that a foreign-born person will not be able to sneak into either of the two high offices.
King, in the U.S. House, already has signaled that he will introduce immigration bills in Washington parallel to several that Berman and Riddle will bring with them to Austin next January.
If you only knew Berman from his birther bill, you might be surprised by him in person. He does not come across as a Gomer-talking demagogue, at least not at first. A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, son of Latvian immigrants who entered the country through Ellis Island, Berman is genial and speaks with faint echoes of a Northeastern accent. But when he opens his mouth, he does pour out the heart and soul of the region that elects him to the Texas Legislature every two years.
Berman depicts a Texas awash in illegal aliens, the entire state on the verge of sinking beneath their weight. “They’re using every emergency room in the state,” he says earnestly. “If a Texan actually gets sick or gets injured and needs emergency room care, he’s usually sitting in there with a roomful of illegal aliens, waiting and waiting for hours.
“But the hospitals don’t charge illegal aliens anything. They get free healthcare. U.S. citizens can’t enjoy that benefit.”
He describes the burgeoning immigrant population in Texas as if it were anthrax. “You’ve got one illegal alien that comes in. They’ve got enough money to buy a rent house. And you get a half-dozen families living in a house. And these people are sending their kids to our schools. They’re dumbing down our schools.”
He sees the problem in Texas as emblematic of a national crisis. Clearly, Texas is the place to look for leadership, he believes, unlike other more liberal climes that have already humiliated themselves.
“I think Los Angeles is probably governed by illegal aliens right now,” he says. “I’ve heard there are more illegal aliens in Los Angeles than there are Californians.”
Berman and Riddle’s cause fits on a bumper sticker: Get ‘Em Out. The complex case for the moderate side is made of many arguments, but taken one at a time, each can also be direct, persuasive, even simple.
Craig Regelbrugge, whose national group, ACIR, represents labor-intensive agriculture, starts with a simple fact: Most ag workers in this country are foreign citizens, here illegally, working with fake IDs.
But the next thing he says is that his industry is totally dependent on them to harvest certain kinds of crops. Native-born American workers won’t do the work, he insists, almost at any wage, certainly not at a wage that would allow American growers to compete with imported products.
“There are somewhere on the order of 1.6 million farm workers who are seriously engaged in agricultural work in the U.S.,” he says. “Current estimates are that certainly more than half and probably upward of more than 75 percent of those workers lack proper immigration status.”
So if they’re not here legally, and it’s a crime to hire them, why don’t the growers all get arrested? It’s a question that has been answered in the courts.
The courts have ruled that if a worker shows an employer credible-looking citizenship documents, the employer breaks no law by hiring him. Regglebrugge says the foreign workers his industry hires all have expertly forged citizenship documents.
Another question: Even if it’s legal, why take the risk? Agricultural businesses typically have big loans to pay and must put up with plenty of Vegas-style uncertainty in the matter of weather alone. Why would they volunteer for the additional risk of a big federal roundup of their entire workforce right at harvest time?
“That’s a very good question,” Regelbrugge says, “and it allows me to dispel a common misconception that farmers somehow prefer the system they have.”
He says they hate the system. But farmers have to hire the people with fake IDs or go out of business. It’s why they want reform.
“It’s pretty much become a settled matter that foreign-born workers are going to be doing much of the agricultural work in this country. Nobody who is informed is really disputing that.
“Anti-immigrant groups will argue that if things were different, wages were higher, and working conditions were different, Americans would do this work.”
But Americans, Regelbrugge counters, don’t do hard outdoor seasonal work anymore. They will work for less money to work indoors at Walmart or McDonald’s.
It’s not even about money. “We can all argue about where the cheap-labor line exists,” he says. “But the average wage in agriculture is over $10 an hour and substantially higher than the federal minimum wage. Good strawberry pickers can make $18 dollars or $20 an hour.”
Regglebrugge says nobody in his industry thinks hiring native-born Americans is even an option. If the supply of foreign workers dries up, American growers will get out of the fresh fruit and handpicked produce trade entirely — a process he thinks is already under way.
“The ultimate question is not who will do the work here. It’s whether the work will be done here or whether the work will leave the country.”
On the other hand, some American workers who did not want to lose their jobs have lost them anyway in the onslaught of low-wage immigrant workers that began in the late 1980s. In the drywall installation trade in California, for example, academic studies have documented the erosion of wages and other benefits, and the eventual collapse of the drywall installers union, after contractors began hiring immigrant laborers.
But that still leaves us with the facts on the ground today, and now the American economy is deeply dependent on immigrants — not merely on immigrants in general, but specifically on undocumented immigrants. A 2009 study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that undocumented workers make up 40 percent of the brick masons in this country, 37 percent of drywall installers, 28 percent of dishwashers, 27 percent of maids, and 21 percent of parking-lot attendants. The sheer economic shock factor in abruptly running off that large a contingent of the national workforce would be staggering.
There also is a more high-end problem. Among people pushing for reform is a contingent that says a punitive restriction-based approach to immigration will damage the country badly in high-tech and professional fields, where international competition for highly qualified immigrants is global and intense.
David Leopold, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says our immigration system already is a messy proposition for the legal immigrants, whom American companies, universities, and hospitals must competitively recruit.
The total number of visas available in the country in any given year, for example, is not tied to the needs of industry. Visa availability has more to do with decades-old policies aimed at reunifying the families of immigrants who are already here, and even that system is a mess. An August 12 VVM story explained that the current system sets the same cap on visas for Mexico as for Belgium, so that families in Mexico seeking permission to join relatives here legally may wait 20 years before their cases even come up for review.
An immigrant who comes here to take a prestigious position at a company or university can wait a decade for a green card granting permanent residence, Leopold says, only to find at the last minute that he didn’t win the visa lottery. He comes here, launches a career, puts down family roots, and then years later discovers he’s out of luck.
“It’s a very unattractive situation to come into if you are highly educated and you have skills that are marketable elsewhere,” he says.
Other countries that want to recruit the same people have streamlined their systems. “Canada and Europe understand this,” he says, “and they are marketing themselves to the best and the brightest that would normally come here.”
Irina Plumlee, an immigration lawyer in Dallas, says hiring a highly qualified immigrant is not cheap. It’s the employer who must pay the government fees and legal costs.
“Let’s say you pay $5,000 to $6,000 to get an initial work permit [for your prospective employee], which is good for three years,” she says. “Then let’s say you would spend another $5,500 to extend that for another three years. If you want go for a green card, that’s about $10,000, ballpark.”
One immigrant, $20,500. Why pay that much to hire a foreigner? Plumlee says employers pay it because in many industries and professions, the search for top talent is now a highly competitive global quest.
“Each country wants to select the best and the brightest for itself, and I think the immigrants play that game as well.”
Leopold says the American system, already archaic, will only become more forbidding if Congress starts threatening employers with jail for getting the paperwork wrong and begins expelling immigrants on a wholesale basis for status violations. Then, he predicts, most American employers will just stop hunting for top global talent.
But the immigration issue is not only about immigrants. The flow of people across borders is a fundamental element of the nation’s international trade policy, of which the North American Free Trade Agreement is the centerpiece.
NAFTA is an attempt by Canada, Mexico, and the United States to create a combined market bulky enough to compete and bargain effectively with Europe and the Pacific Rim. It bonds the United States at both hips with Canada and Mexico.
The U.S. Census lists Mexico as our second biggest trade partner for exports after Canada, with a share twice the size of what we sell to China. Mexico is our third-largest partner for imports, after China and Canada. It is our third-largest trade partner for exports and imports combined.
Trade and immigration are a horse and carriage that have to go together, according to Robert V. Kemper, a cultural anthropologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who has studied these patterns: “You can’t say yes to the money and no to the people. It doesn’t work that way.”
The people who realize how much money it is don’t want to say no to it. In a March 11, 2009, hearing of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce Walter Bastian said, “The amount of trade that goes back and forth across the southern border probably comes to about a half a million dollars a minute.
“Try to figure that out,” he told the committee. “Per minute, every minute of the year . . . are talking about huge volumes of trade.”
Not everybody loves NAFTA. Todd Tucker, research director at Global Trade Watch, a Washington advocacy group, says NAFTA itself is churning instability within Mexico by stripping away domestic-trade protection for Mexican agricultural products. The terms of NAFTA allowed cheaper American agricultural products to invade Mexico’s domestic market, putting millions of Mexican farm workers out of work. Many flowed from southern to northern Mexico, Tucker says, only to find not-hiring signs on factories at the border, where the American economic crisis was having a strong effect. The churn of NAFTA, he claims, also provides a lot of the push propelling hundreds of thousands of poor Mexicans north into the United States.
If Tucker is right, that’s only one more reason for the United States to take a constructive approach to its Latino immigrant population. And that is not what Mexican leaders see us doing.
Last April, on the same day Governor Brewer signed Arizona’s immigrant crackdown law, Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa issued a statement saying in part, “Criminalization is not the way to resolve undocumented immigration.”
President Felipe Calderón called the Arizona law an “obstacle to solving the shared problems of the border region.” Calderón always has insisted the United States needs to figure out one of two things: 1) a way to stop hiring Mexicans or 2) a way to hire them legally, so that coming here and accepting an offer of work won’t turn a Mexican into a criminal.
The even greater injustice of the current arrangement may be luring immigrants here to work but leaving them outside the community of the law. The same August 12 VVM story painted a horrific picture of helpless immigrants held in “pain houses” by kidnappers who dial up the relatives of their captives so families can listen by cell phone to the screams of their loved ones as they are tortured to extort ransom money.
No organized criminal activity of that sort aimed at innocent mainstream American citizens could survive. But the operation exposed by VVM, preying on people only half-seen by society, survives and thrives.
To cleanse itself of these cancers, America must go after the cause, says Leopold of the immigration lawyers association. The place to start is outside immigration law, in the area of labor and workplace regulation. Leopold believes we must root out the core incentives that bring people here illegally in the first place.
The best way to protect U.S. workers and immigrants alike, he says, is to make sure American employers cannot and do not hire immigrant labor at lower-than-market wages, under worse conditions.
“We have to have safeguards to make sure immigrants are not subject to abuse by bad actor employers because that is immoral, but also because we have to protect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers.”
The Lamar Smith/Steve King contingent also likes the idea of strong enforcement. In fact, their battle cry has been enforcement first — enforcement at the border, enforcement in the workplace — but what they actually mean is enforcement to arrest and expel people, not to uphold laws protecting workers.
But it almost doesn’t matter. Even with tough enforcement — labor law, trespassing law, whatever the country throws at them — poor immigrants will keep coming as long as there is work.
In 2005, the Mexican Migration Field Research and Training Program in Southern California studied “sending communities” — small towns in Northern Mexico whose populations often cross illegally into the United States.
Of those interviewed, 80 percent believed that border crossing had become much more difficult because of steps the United States had taken to close the border. Two-thirds knew someone who had died trying to cross.
But only 23 percent had been caught themselves. Ninety percent hired coyotes to smuggle them across. They said the coyotes always gave them three tries for one payment. Ninety-two percent of those who had been caught said they eventually made it into the United States, usually within a day of being caught.
Fifty-one percent of those interviewed said they would cross again within the year. But of those who said they would not cross that year, only 20 percent cited issues at the border. The rest said they would not cross because they didn’t need the money, had family issues, or were too old.
Since 2005 the U.S. Border Patrol has been carrying out Operation Streamline, the nation’s most significant experiment in using criminal convictions as a cure for illegal immigration. An October 21 VVM story showed that Operation Streamline is exceedingly expensive, swamps local courts, pushes illegal crossing from one part of the border to another, and generates vast revenue for Corrections Corporation of America, the private prison company paid to incarcerate prisoners taken by Operation Streamline. But a study by the University of California-Berkeley Law School’s Warren Institute found that the number of people arrested at the border fluctuates up and down according to the U.S. job market, not according to the efforts of Operation Streamline.
Conservative opponents to mass expulsion argue that some form of immigration — legal, illegal, or something in between — is inevitable because it is driven by underlying market forces. If they’re right, then mass expulsion becomes a never-ending nightmare.
Linda Chavez, the author and former Reaganite — a lifelong foe of affirmative action and crusader for English-language instruction in schools — sees Republicans like Lamar Smith and Steve King bending to a point of view that is in conflict with her sense of traditional GOP economic conservatism.
“The problem,” she says, “is that they are really being driven on this issue by a confluence of groups including the Center for Immigration Studies, Federation for American Immigration Reform, and NumbersUSA, which are not just opposed to illegal immigration. They’re opposed to legal immigration.
“They have a longstanding history of wanting limits and restrictions, and, frankly, I think they would like zero population growth or even negative population growth.”
Chavez says Republicans find themselves “in bed with people that frankly, ideologically, they don’t have a whole lot in common with and being pushed to take positions which are totally inconsistent with free-market conservative economic principles.”
Other conservative opponents of expulsion argue from religious conviction. The Reverend Bill Hybels, pastor of the 12,000-plus member Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, near Chicago, calls mass expulsion “impractical and immoral.”
Hybels believes mass expulsion is the rock in the road that all Americans must negotiate morally to make up their minds about immigration. “You’ve got to put it front and center.” He says the immigration debate has become infected with “anti-Mexican rhetoric,” especially among some politicians.
But he sees all of that as changing. “I think we’re making headway. More leaders are coming together, particularly in the faith community and the evangelical community.”
Hybels is optimistic about the nation’s ability to deal with the issue morally and successfully. “I think some of the grassroots are ahead of the politicians,” he says.
None of it can be easy. Irina Plumlee, the immigration lawyer in Dallas, doesn’t believe mass expulsion is a viable solution, but she points out that mass legalization will pose its own perplexing problems, especially in the “back-of-the-line” area.
“Let’s say the solution is to legalize 11 million people tomorrow. What happens with all the legal immigrants who have been waiting for sometimes decades to immigrate here legally? Don’t they deserve better than to watch 11 million people who came here illegally get legalized overnight?”
But Samuel Rodriguez, president of the evangelical National Hispanic Leadership Conference, goes to the Bible to say legalization must happen anyway: “It is a moral imperative. My best case is that this has to be about integration. I quote scripture — Leviticus 19 [‘You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself’].”
He is not opposed to all deportation. “Let’s deport the felons. Let’s deport the narco-traffickers. Let’s deport the gang-bangers. Let’s deport those who have not come here for a better life but have come here to worsen our community. But let’s look at the other 98 percent. Let’s provide a pathway for integration.”
David Leopold offers a starker view: “We saw the Germans expel millions and millions of people. I don’t mean to be flippant, but it’s the same sort of mentality, moving a population from one place to another.”
That’s exactly what Leo Berman will be gunning for when he arrives in Austin in January—moving an entire population from one place, here, to another one, gone. In that determination he will express his own moral values and the values of his constituents.
“Not only Texans but people all over the United States are just getting sick and tired of paying for people,” he says. “This is the first time we’ve ever given benefits to illegal aliens, or to any aliens that come into the United States.
“My parents are immigrants. They came from Europe. They got zero. They got nothing. They had to make it on their own. But illegal aliens can’t make it on their own.”
Berman looks on deportation the same way most Texans do football — as a life and death competition. “The Texas Legislature meets every other year for 140 days,” he explains. “We’re not in session all the time. Most states around us are in session all the time.”
He worries that many of these busier state legislatures are already beating Texas to the punch: “They’re cutting out benefits that illegal aliens are getting with false ID cards, like a phony Social Security card or phony driver’s license.
“They are making those illegals in those states self-deport. In other words, they are leaving those states. But where are they going to?”His nightmare is that other states will succeed in expelling their Latino immigrants faster than Texas and that the Latinos who self-deport will come to Texas, putting Texas at the bottom of the deportation league. “They are coming to Texas,” he says, “because we haven’t done anything yet.”
David Leopold also views immigration reform as a competitive matter. He just doesn’t think the important outcomes happen in Berman’s league.
“Forget the right and the wrong about the unauthorized folks in the country. Forget the moral questions about illegality. If we want to compete, if we want to stay number one in this world, we’ve got to fix this immigration issue.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 22, 2010