Complexities of our immigration policy

Published 9:12 am Friday, July 25, 2008

Of the many difficulties facing this country, perhaps the one that causes the most passion on both sides of the issue is illegal immigration.

It is a complex problem with complex solutions. Many have reduced it to a simple equation: Illegal immigrants are causing all of our economic problems. This simplistic scapegoating is neither accurate nor helpful. Many of our problems can be traced to the cost of the Iraq war, out of control gas prices, dependence on foreign oil, corporate welfare, tax breaks for the wealthy, and irresponsible lending, none of which have any connection to illegal immigration.

Many employer groups in Arizona, California, Oklahoma, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, Massachusetts and others are lobbying for less stringent laws and penalties against companies with long established and responsible histories. They realize they do need these workers and also want to be on the on the right side of the law, as per Tamar Jacoby, president of the new Federation Immigration Works USA.

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These business owners realize that if mass roundups cause business failures that many American employees will be out of work. As per The Colorado Employers for Immigration Reform, they are asking lawmakers on the state and federal level to find a more economically viable solution.

Leading mayors from Los Angeles, Seattle, and Oakland plan to introduce a resolution denouncing the workplace raids. Resolution No. 52 emphasizes the damage done to local economies by such raids and calls upon the government to focus its enforcement efforts on businesses that actually exploit workers through violations of wage and safety laws rather than responsible employers who contribute to their communities. Widespread raids also do not act as deterrents as desire for work overcomes fear of deportation. Unless raids are coupled with comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to legal status, these raids will remain ineffective.

On May 12, 2008, the largest workplace immigration raid in U.S. History took place in Postville, Iowa. Elected officials, community members and religious leaders reveal that the raid tore the community apart. Mayor Bob Penrod told the Des Moines Register, “We didn’t need this. This literally blew our town away.”

A NY Times editorial on July 13, “The Shame of Postville Iowa,” quotes Erik Camayd-Freixas, a professor at Florida International University and Spanish court interpreter who witnessed the aftermath. He stated that the detainees couldn’t understand the charges they faced and neither could he. Prisoners were shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles. “It was the saddest procession I have ever witnessed which the public would never see.” Cameras were forbidden at the proceedings.

He continues, “No one is denying that the workers were on the wrong side of the law. But there is a profound difference between stealing people’s identities to rob them of money and property and using false papers to merely get a job. Deporting unauthorized workers is one thing, sending desperate breadwinners to prison and their families deeper into poverty is another. A line was crossed at Postville.” Court interpreters are normally impartial and keep opinions to themselves but Dr. Camayd-Freixas said he was so offended by the cruelty of the prosecutions that he felt compelled to break his silence.

The most disturbing consequence of these raids is the impact that this has on the children. About 5 million children have at least one undocumented parent, and two-thirds of these kids are American citizens. On a daily basis these children are sent off to school with instructions as to what to do if they get home and parents are gone. Imagine sending your own child off with a kiss that you both fear may be your last.

Practically speaking these raids put a tremendous strain on our social service systems. According to a 2007 National Council of La Raza report, they have found evidence of increased economic hardship, social stigma, fear, isolation, family separation, disruptions in schooling and negative emotional and mental health consequences for these children as a result of these raids. Teachers, caregivers and mental health professionals consistently described children with symptoms of depression and other psychological disturbances such as sleep disorders, loss of appetite, fearfulness, mood swings and feelings of abandonment by their parents. These are children, American citizens and our future that we are talking about here.

I do not presume to have all the answers. This is a complex problem with many consequences for each action taken. It is not going to be solved by throwing productive hard working people in jail or deporting them while separating families.

Let us join together in honoring our shared history of immigration. We are all the beneficiaries of ancestors who took the risk of coming here for a better life. Let us use our humanity, compassion and intelligence to unite and rejoice in our commonality and our differences and solve this problem together. “As a country we should not put our youngest citizens at risk of hunger, homelessness and living without parents,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “Our immigration system has to be squared with values.”

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Karen Meyerson MSW, ACSW is a member of Freeborn County Paths to Peace.