Saturday, February 2, 2013

Some Questions about the President's Immigration Fact-Sheet

Earlier this week, President Obama released his outline for comprehensive immigration reform.  Upon reading it, I ended up with many questions and some criticisms, which I've decided to record below.  The plan is a mix of good and bad, and the balance between the two will likely show as the details are worked out.

“President Obama’s commonsense immigration reform proposal has four parts….Together we can build a fair, effective and commonsense immigration system that lives up to our heritage as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants….The key principles the President believes should be included in commonsense immigration reform are:”

The word “commonsense” should be, in my humble opinion, permanently banned from political discourse.  It is a rhetorical ploy used to frame one’s own opinions as those of a rational center.  It implies that all logical human beings should converge on your own beliefs, if they have not already done so, and it marks an attempt to limit the boundaries of debate at the outset.  Oftentimes, that which is common is not sensible, and that which is sensible is not common.  Even when I agree with a policy or proposal (there is both good and bad in this one), I think the use of “commonsense” does nothing for the argument for its morality and utility.

Now let’s look at the four key principles of his proposal:

“Continuing to Strengthen Border Security: President Obama has doubled the number of Border Patrol agents since 2004 and today border security is stronger than it has ever been. But there is more work to do. The President’s proposal gives law enforcement the tools they need to make our communities safer from crime. And by enhancing our infrastructure and technology, the President’s proposal continues to strengthen our ability to remove criminals and apprehend and prosecute national security threats.”

If we have doubled the number of Border Patrol agents and the “border is stronger than it has ever been,” then why do we need to spend more on immigration enforcement?   The US currently spends more on immigration enforcement than all other federal enforcement agencies combined.  Considering the President’s penchant for “belt-tightening” austerity, why should we allocate money that could go to education, health care, or infrastructure to border enforcement?  Moreover, if we are spending as much as we are and still not achieving the imagined ideal of border security, then our problem is not of money but of foresight and oversight.

By starting off with a discussion of border security, the President immediately shifts the discussion of comprehensive immigration reform away from its human face.  By speaking of crime and “national security threats,” he is demonizing the immigrant population, ignoring the many positive rationales for immigration and starting with a stereotyped image. 

Moreover, I find it difficult to see language concerning “apprehend[ing] and prosecut[ing] national security threats” without thinking of the US practices of indefinite detention.  Is the new “infrastructure” for prosecuting these “national security threats” a high-speed train to Guantanamo Bay?

Cracking Down on Employers Hiring Undocumented Workers: Our businesses should only employ people legally authorized to work in the United States. Businesses that knowingly employ undocumented workers are exploiting the system to gain an advantage over businesses that play by the rules. The President’s proposal is designed to stop these unfair hiring practices and hold these companies accountable. At the same time, this proposal gives employers who want to play by the rules a reliable way to verify that their employees are here legally.

Considering the recent history of voter purges, how can we ensure that the e-verify system does not incorrectly categorize workers?  What checks will exist to ensure that this does not happen—that you do not deport individuals on false charges stemming from mechanical error?

Moreover, why should we put our faith in the employers in the first place?  And how can we ensure that the employer control over the process does not lead to labor abuses? How will you know when an employer is using undocumented workers?

Earned Citizenship: It is just not practical to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants living within our borders. The President’s proposal provides undocumented immigrants a legal way to earn citizenship that will encourage them to come out of the shadows so they can pay their taxes and play by the same rules as everyone else. Immigrants living here illegally must be held responsible for their actions by passing national security and criminal background checks, paying taxes and a penalty, going to the back of the line, and learning English before they can earn their citizenship. There will be no uncertainty about their ability to become U.S. citizens if they meet these eligibility criteria. The proposal will also stop punishing innocent young people brought to the country through no fault of their own by their parents and give them a chance to earn their citizenship more quickly if they serve in the military or pursue higher education.

Yes, Mr. President, the reduction of citizenship to paying taxes and playing by the same rules as everyone else reflects the rather limited moral imagination of the United States today.  Shouldn’t there be more positive descriptions of citizenship—like participating in the democratic process and thus being able to gain autonomy as a worker, a community member, and as a citizen?

How do you calculate a “fair” penalty for these individuals?  If they are low-income, as many probably are, wouldn’t an economic penalty be, in fact, unfair as you are forcing low-income individuals to sink further into debt and weakening their financial stability? What do you do with the individuals who are unable to afford the penalty?  Are you just going to deport them?

If they are already here and are already contributing to the economy, why should they have to go to the “back of the line”?  The immigration process is not particularly fast.  How can you guarantee that they will gain formal citizenship in a reasonable amount of time?  What legal status do they hold in the meantime?  If you you are currently on the path to deport a record number of individuals, then why should these undocumented workers trust that nothing will happen to them when they report to an immigration office to begin their path to citizenship—or at any stage within it?

Not all immigrants will have the ability to speak English.  What are you planning to do to help those who are not yet fluent to become so in order to gain a pathway to citizenship?  You have already said that you want to penalize them with a fine, and now you are saying that you want these individuals to invest their time and money in learning a new language.  Who will provide the language instruction?  If you mandate that they learn the language but do not provide formal instruction, might we see a growth of for-profit language instruction institutions that aim to scam these individuals who so desire a route to full citizenship?  Would you subsidize the language instruction classes, or offer them for free? 

How do you plan to reach these individuals?  If their native language is Spanish, maybe you will try to place ads on television stations like Telemundo or Univision or target other Spanish-language media.  What about those who speak other languages?  How will you ensure that all of these individuals will, in fact, have the opportunity of starting on the pathway to citizenship? 

Streamlining Legal Immigration: Our immigration system should reward anyone who is willing to work hard and play by the rules. For the sake of our economy and our security, legal immigration should be simple and efficient. The President’s proposal attracts the best minds to America by providing visas to foreign entrepreneurs looking to start businesses here and helping the most promising foreign graduate students in science and math stay in this country after graduation, rather than take their skills to other countries. The President’s proposal will also reunify families in a timely and humane manner.

If we are aiming to attract foreign entrepreneurs and engineers, aren’t we trying to create a “brain drain” on other countries?  How will this policy affect the countries that now lose doctors, engineers, researchers, and entrepreneurs?  What does it do to the labor market of those at home? 

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