Thursday, January 25, 2007

schizophrenic immigration policy

Immigration is a new front in the culture wars. The issue is heating up and it’s unclear to me how it will be resolved. Over the past year, as the issue gained more exposure, I feel that anti-immigrant sentiment has become more entrenched among many Americans. Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck hammer away at it on CNN almost every day—meanwhile I’m not aware of comparable voices on the left calling for comprehensive immigration reform, at least in English. You’ve got Spanish-language radio probably performing a similar function as talk radio does for anti-immigrant groups—rallying the troops with impassioned rhetoric. But you don’t have Keith Olbermann or Atrios talking about it every day like they do about Iraq.

What we do have is a fairly broad coalition in the Senate supporting comprehensive immigration reform. This coalition roughly tracks elite consensus on the topic. Business supports comprehensive reform, and most journalists and pundits probably view immigration favorably through an economic and cosmopolitan frame that much of the public does not share. So while Beck, Dobbs, and the talk show hosts rail against illegal immigration, the levers of power quietly move to maintain the flow of immigrants into the country.

But the Bush administration is not impervious to public opinion. So that’s why Bush can call for a guest worker program in the SOTU while simultaneously cracking down on illegal immigrants through Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE), a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.

From ImmigrationProf Blog:

In the past two weeks, ICE authorities have posed as police officers and going door-to-door in neighborhoods searching for people, or standing outside grocery stores and arresting residents who cannot provide documentation of legal residency. According to ICE out of 119 detainees in Contra Costa County, 94 were “encountered in the process”, meaning they had no deportation orders.

This is part of a broader effort that began last summer in response to the backlash against the mass pro-immigrant marches last spring. From the LA Times:

By today, when federal immigration officials announced the results of the sweep, 338 illegal immigrants had been arrested at their homes in Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Los Angeles counties. Another 423 were taken into federal custody at county jails, said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Associated Press rode along on the first day of the secret sweeps, which began Jan. 17. Those arrested were from 14 countries, including Mexico, Honduras, Ukraine, India, Japan, Poland, and Trinidad. Of the 761 people arrested, more than 450 have already been deported, Kice said today.

The raids were a major push within "Operation Return to Sender," a crackdown that has resulted in 13,000 arrests nationwide since June. Immigration officials have also identified 3,000 inmates in state and local jails who will be deported.

The operation targets those illegal immigrants who hide after skipping their voluntary deportation proceedings and criminals who have re-entered the United States after being previously deported for crimes in the U.S.

It's an uphill battle. Despite ongoing efforts, officials estimate that about 600,000 illegal immigrants who have ignored deportation orders are still at large, Kice said.

. . .

The two dozen men -- and one woman -- brought in from other raids now sit on wooden benches, clutching paper bags filled with their personal belongings. ICE officers wind through the room interviewing them in Spanish and helping them fill out forms.

One by one, the immigrants are taken for mug shots and fingerprints. Some will be charged with illegal re-entry to the United States after felony deportation -- a federal crime than can carry up to 20 years in prison. Others, first-time illegal immigrants with no other criminal record, will be processed and deported within days.

Adan Garcia, a 29-year-old dishwasher with a wife and two young boys in Honduras, considers himself lucky to be deported and not charged with a crime. He says he won't be back to the United States -- at least not illegally.

"I came to this country to work, not harm anyone, and not expecting what happened this morning at 5 a.m.," said Garcia, who was taken into custody at the second house. "It wasn't supposed to be this way."

He most likely won’t be back in this country legally, as it’s very difficult to come in legally once you’ve been deported.

Armando Navarro, a professor and pro-immigrant activist, is glum:

"The anti-immigrant climate keeps growing and will grow anticipating the president's immigration reform. Anti-immigrant groups feel more threatened now that there is a Democratic Congress backing the president's plans for immigration reform."

A more aggressive ICE could change a lot of things about how the government interacts with the public and what the role of the government is. Immigrants already avoid the police and most government services out of fear of deportation. This creates a sphere of lawlessness in which crime can flourish. The consequences for the immigrant communities and the larger communities they inhabit can be dire. Stepped-up enforcement by ICE has already disrupted businesses in the West dependent on immigrant labor, like agriculture and manufacturing. Pushing illegal immigrants further into the shadows will exacerbate these problems.

The strategy may also push more immigrants toward urban areas where they are already concentrated and have less to fear from the feds. Currently, in Sanctuary Cities like New York, city officials are prohibited from inquiring about a person’s immigration status in non-criminal matters, and cannot divulge a person's immigration status to the federal government. This two-tier system is not sustainable.

Meanwhile, recent anti-immigrant fervor and five years of the War on Terror has brought xenophobia to new highs.

Recently three Palestinian students were attacked by members of the football team at a Quaker college in North Carolina. A racist assault perpetrated by Quakers! This does not bode well for a peaceful resolution to the immigration debate.

The pessimistic view: We are looking at a Children of Men scenario if this process accelerates, with an impoverished underclass relegated to certain lawless areas while the middle-class majority lives in fear behind fences and riot police.

The optimistic view: The Sanctuary Cities provide a model of how, somewhat counterintuitively, with less strict immigration enforcement, rule of law in an area actually improves. New York City has one of the largest immigrant communities in the country which ICE is relatively unable to penetrate, and it's also one of the safest large cities in the country. And while we have a long history of racism and nativism in the U.S., we’ve also been relatively successful at assimilating past hated groups into the mainstream. These established groups in turn join in on hating on new groups. One would hope we’ll eventually run out of new groups to hate. Or maybe we’ll discover life in space and the human race will finally be united.

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