Talking sense about immigration
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The immigration debate seems to have gone crazy.
President Obamaâs widely popular Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which offered some 750,000 young immigrants brought to the United States as children a temporary reprieve from deportation, is endingâ¦ except it isnâtâ¦ except it isâ¦ President Trump claims to support it but ordered its halt, while both Republicans and Democrats insist that they want to preserve it and blame each other for its impending demise. (Meanwhile, the Supr eme Court recently stepped in to allow DACA recipients to renew their status at least for now.)
On a single day in mid-February, the Senate rejected no less than four immigration bills. These ranged from a narrow proposal to punish sanctuary cities that placed limits on local police collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to major overhauls of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that established the current system of immigration quotas (with preferences for âfamily reunificationâ).
And add in one more thing: virtually everyone in the political sphere is now tailoring his or her pronouncements and votes to political opportunism rather than the real issues at hand.
Politicians and commentators who once denounced âillegal immigration,â insisting that people âdo it the right way,â are now advocating stripping legal status from many who possess it and drastically cutting even legalized immigration. These days, the heart s of conservative Republicans, otherwise promoting programs for plutocrats, are bleeding for low-wage workers whose livelihoods, they claim (quite incorrectly), are being undermined by competition from immigrants. Meanwhile, Chicago Democrat Luis GutiÃ©rrez â" a rare, reliably pro-immigrant voice in Congress â" recently swore that, when it came to Trumpâs much-touted wall on the Mexican border, he was ready to âtake a bucket, take bricks, and start building it myselfâ¦ We will dirty our hands in order for the Dreamers to have a clean future in America.â
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While in GutiÃ©rrezâs neck of the woods, favoring Dreamers may seem politically expedient, giving in to Trumpâs wall would result in far more than just dirty hands, buckets, and bricks, and the congressman knows th at quite well. The significant fortifications already in place on the U.S.-Mexican border have already contributed to the deaths of thousands of migrants, to the increasing militarization of the region, to a dramatic rise of paramilitary drug- and human-smuggling gangs, and to a rise in violent lawlessness on both sides of the border. Add to that a 2,000-mile concrete wall or some combination of walls, fences, bolstered border patrols, and the latest in technology and youâre not just talking about some benign waste of money in return for hanging on to the DACA kids.
In the swirl of all this, the demands of immigrant rights organizations for a âclean Dream Actâ that would genuinely protect DACA recipients without giving in to Trumpâs many anti-immigration demands have come to seem increasingly unrealistic. No matter that they hold the only morally coherent position in town â" and a broadly popular one nationally as well â" DACAâs congressional backers seem to have already conceded defeat.
Good guys and bad guys
It wonât surprise you, Iâm sure, to learn that Donald Trump portrays the world in a strikingly black-and-white way when it comes to immigration (and so much else). He emphasizes the violent criminal nature of immigrants and the undocumented, repeatedly highlighting and falsely generalizing from relatively rare cases in which one of them committed a violent crime like the San Francisco killing of Kate Steinle. His sweeping references to âforeign bad guysâ and âshithole countriesâ suggest that he applies the same set of judgments to the international arena.
Under Trumpâs auspices, the agency in charge of applying the law to immigrants, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has taken the concept of criminality to new heights in order to justify expanded priorities for deportation. Now, an actual criminal conviction is no longer necessary. An individual with âpending criminal chargesâ or simply a âknown gang memberâ has also become an ICE âpriority.â In other words, a fear-inspiring accusation or even rumor is all thatâs needed to deem an immigrant a âcriminal.â
And such attitudes are making their way ever deeper into this society. Iâve seen it at Salem State University, the college where I teach. In a recent memo explaining why he opposes giving the school sanctuary-campus status, the chief of campus police insisted that his force must remain authorized to report students to ICE when there are cases of âbad actorsâ¦ street gang participationâ¦ drug traffickingâ¦ even absent a warrant or other judicial order.â In other words, due process be damned, the police, any police, can determine guilt as they wish.
And this tendency toward such a Trumpian Manichaean worldview, now being used to justify the growth of what can only be called an incipient police state, is so strong that itâs even infiltrated the thinking of some of the presidentâ s immigration opponents. Take âchain migration,â an obscure concept previously used mainly by sociologists and historians to describe nineteenth and twentieth century global migration patterns. The president has, of course, made it his epithet du jour.
Because the president spoke of âchain migrationâ in such a derogatory way, anti-Trump liberals immediately assumed that the phrase was inherently insulting. MSNBC correspondent Joy Reid typically charged that âthe president is saying that the only bill he will approve of must end what they call âchain migrationâ which is actually a term we in the media should just not use! Because quite frankly itâs not a real thing, itâs a made up termâ¦ [and] so offensive! Itâs shocking to me that weâre just adopting it wholesale because [White House adviser] Stephen Miller wants to call it thatâ¦ [The term should be] family migration.â
Similarly, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand claimed that âw hen someone uses the phrase chain migrationâ¦ it is intentional in trying to demonize families, literally trying to demonize families, and make it a racist slur.â House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi agreed: âLook what theyâre doing with family unification, making up a fake name, chain. Chain, they like the word âchain.â That sends tremors through people.â
But chain migration is not the same as family reunification. Chain migration is a term used by academics to explain how people tended to migrate from their home communities using pre-existing networks. Examples would include the great migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West, the migrations of rural Appalachians to Midwestern industrial cities, waves of European migration to the United States at the turn of the last century, as well as contemporary migration from Latin America and Asia.
A single individual or a small group, possibly recruited through a state-sponsored system or by an employer, or simply knowing of employment opportunities in a particular area, sometimes making use of a new rail line or steamship or air route, would venture forth, opening up new horizons. Once in a new region or land, such immigrants directly or indirectly recruited friends, acquaintances, and family members. Soon enough, there were growing links â" hence that âchainâ â" between the original rural or urban communities where such people lived and distant cities. Financial remittances began to flow back; return migration (or simply visits to the old homeland) took place; letters about the new world arrived; and sometimes new technologies solidified ongoing ties, impelling yet more streams of migrants. Thatâs the chain in chain migration and, despite the president and his supporters, thereâs nothing offensive about it.
Family reunification, on the other hand, was a specific part of this countryâs 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which imposed quotas globally. These were then distributed through a priority system that privileged the close relatives of immigrants who had already become permanent residents or U.S. citizens. Family reunification opened paths for those who had family members in the United States (though in countries where the urge to migrate was high, the waiting list could be decades long). In the process, however, it made legal migration virtually impossible for those without such ties. There was no âlineâ for them to wait in. Like DACA and Temporary Protected Status (TPS), the two programs that President Trump is now working so assiduously to dismantle, family reunification has been beneficial to those in a position to take advantage of it, even if it excluded far more people than it helped.
Why does this matter? As a start, at a moment when political posturing and âfake newsâ are becoming the norm, itâs important that the immigrant rights movement remain accurate and on solid ground in i ts arguments. (Indeed, the anti-immigrant right has been quick to gloat over Democrats condemning a term they had been perfectly happy to use in the past.) In addition, itâs crucial not to be swept away by Trumpâs Manichaean view of the world when it comes to immigration. Legally, family reunification was never an open-arms policy. It was always a key component in a system of quotas meant to limit, control, and police migration, often in stringent ways. It was part of a system built to exclude at least as much as include. There may be good reasons to defend the family reunification provisions of the 1965 Act, just as there are good reasons to defend DACA â" but that does not mean that a deeply problematic status quo should be glorified.
Racism and the immigrant âthreatâ
Those very quotas and family-reunification policies served to âillegalizeâ most Mexican migration to the United States. That, in turn, created the basis not just for militarizing the pol ice and the border, but for what anthropologist Leo ChÃ¡vez has called the âLatino threat narrativeâ: the notion that the United States somehow faces an existential threat from Mexican and other Latino immigrants.
So President Trump has drawn on a long legacy here, even if in a particularly invidious fashion. The narrative evolved over time in ways that sought to downplay its explicitly racial nature. Popular commentators railed against âillegalâ immigrants, while lauding those who âdo it the right way.â The threat narrative, for instance, lurked at the very heart of the immigration policies of the Obama administration. President Obama regularly hailed exceptional Latino and other immigrants, even as the criminalization, mass incarceration, and deportation of so many were, if anything, being ramped up. Criminalization provided a âcolor-blindâ cover as the president separated undocumented immigrants into two distinct groups: âfelonsâ and âfamilies.â In those years, so many commentators postured on the side of those they defined as the deserving exceptions, while adding further fuel to the threat narrative.
President Trump has held onto a version of this ostensibly color-blind and exceptionalist narrative, while loudly proclaiming himself âthe least racist personâ anyone might ever run into and praising DACA recipients as âgood, educated, and accomplished young people.â But the racist nature of his anti-immigrant extremism and his invocations of the âthreatâ have gone well beyond Obamaâs programs. In his attack on legal immigration, chain migration, and legal statuses like DACA and TPS, race has again reared its head explicitly.
Unless they were to come from âcountries like Norwayâ or have some special âmerit,â Trump seems to believe that immigrants should essentially all be illegalized, prohibited, or expelled. Some of his earliest policy moves like his attacks on refugees and his travel ban wer e aimed precisely at those who would otherwise fall into a legal category, those who had âfollowed the rules,â âwaited in line,â âregistered with the government,â or âpaid taxes,â including refugees, DACA kids, and TPS recipients â" all of them people already in the system and approved for entry or residence.
As ICE spokespeople remind us when asked to comment on particularly egregious examples of the arbitrary detention and deportation of long-term residents, President Trump has rescinded the Obama-era âpriority enforcementâ program that emphasized the apprehension and deportation of people with criminal records and recent border-crossers. Now, âno category of removable aliens [is] exempt from enforcement.â While President Trump has continued to verbally support the Dreamers, his main goal in doing so has clearly been to use them as a bargaining chip in obtaining his dramatically restrictionist priorities from a reluctant Congress.
The U.S. C ustoms and Immigration Service (USCIS) made the new restrictionist turn official in late February when it revised its mission statement to delete this singular line: âUSCIS secures Americaâs promise as a nation of immigrants.â No longer. Instead, we are now told, the agency âadministers the nationâs lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and promiseâ¦ while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.â
Challenging the restrictionist agenda
Many immigrant rights organizations have fought hard against the criminalization narrative that distinguishes the Dreamers from other categories of immigrants. Mainstream and Democrat-affiliated organizations have, however, generally pulled the other way, emphasizing the âinnocenceâ of those young people who were brought here âthrough no fault of their own.â
Dreamers, TPS recipients, refugees, and even those granted priority under the family reunification policy ha ve all operated as exceptions to what has long been a far broader restrictionist immigration agenda. Trump has now taken that agenda in remarkably extreme directions. So fighting to protect such exceptional categories makes sense, given the millions who have benefited from them, but no one should imagine that Americaâs policies have ever been generous or open.
Regarding refugees, for example, the State Department website still suggests that âthe United States is proud of its history of welcoming immigrants and refugeesâ¦ The U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United Statesâ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity, and leadership.â Even before Trump entered the Oval Office, this wasnât actually true: the refugee resettlement program has always been both small and highly politicized. For example, out of approximately seven million Syrian refugees who fled the complex set of conflicts in their country since 2011 â" conflicts that would not have unfolded as they did without the American invasion of Iraq â" the United States has accepted only 21,000. Now, however, the fight to preserve even such numbers looks like a losing rearguard battle.
Given that a truly just reform of the countryâs immigration system is inconceivable at the moment, it makes sense that those concerned with immigrant rights concentrate on areas where egregious need or popular sympathy have made stopgap measures realistic. The problem is that, over the years, this approach has tended to separate out particular groups of immigrants from the larger narrative and so failed to challenge the underlying racial and criminalizing animus toward all those immigrants consigned to the depths of the economic system and systematically denied the right of belonging.
In a sense, President Trump is correct: there really isnât a way to draw a hard and fast line between legal and illegal immigration or between the felons and the families. Many im migrants live in mixed-status households, including those whose presence has been authorized in different ways or not authorized at all. And most of those felons, often convicted of recently criminalized, immigration-related or other minor violations, have families, too.
Trump and his followers, of course, want just about all immigrants to be criminalized and excluded or deported because, in one way or another, they consider them dangers to the rest of us. While political realism demands that battles be fought for the rights of particular groups of immigrants, itâs no less important to challenge the looming narrative of immigrant criminalization and to refuse to assume that the larger war has already been lost. In the end, isnât it time to challenge the notion that people in general, and immigrants in particular, can be easily divided into deserving good guys and undeserving bad guys?Source: Google News