Immigration Reformers Must Take the Moral High Ground
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The buzz filling Blackberrys, busy halls and spacious deal-making rooms in Washington appears to signal that spring arrived early this year for immigrants. In the last week alone, several prominent figures—outgoing President Bush, incoming President Obama, Mexican President Calderón, Los Angeles Cardinal Mahoney, to name a few—have discussed the possibility of comprehensive immigration reform. And, as in the previous failed attempts at reform in 2006 and 2007, legalization for the more than 12 million undocumented among us occupies the center of forums, speeches and other public statements of Democratic and civic leaders in the beltway.
“Immigrants must be brought out of the shadows so they can fully contribute to our nation’s future economic and social well-being,” declared Cardinal Mahoney during a recent teleconference.
While laudable in its intent, the legalization-centered approach of Mahoney and others may not be the best way to deal with the tragic legacy of failed immigration reform: spikes in anti-immigrant, anti-Latino hate crimes, deaths in decrepit immigrant prisons, thousands of families separated, children and families terrorized by heavily armed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raiding their homes.
These efforts are inadequate because, contrary to the new Washington consensus on immigration, the greatest single need in immigration reform is not legalization. Rather, what is most needed is moral imagination.
The predominance of the “practical” considerations – “immigrants are good for the economy,” “we need tough and smart enforcement,” etc.— framing the arguments in favor of comprehensive reform should be balanced by a simple, but now elusive fact that smashes any of the discursive frames prevailing on either side of the immigration debate: undocumented immigrants are first and foremost human beings whose lives are as sacred as that of any other being.
Although all advocates surely believe this, not all voice it as much as they used to.
Thankfully, the possibilities of the political moment reflected in the election of Barack Obama and a new, more Democratic Congress offer us the best opportunity to return morality to the center of an immigration debate that has reached dangerous levels of absurdity, if the spate of murders of immigrants here in “liberal” New York and other cities are any indicator.
Although Mahoney, Bush and other backers of immigration reform have included some moral arguments as part of their case, the Washington, D.C., realpolitik of the past decade has pushed moral considerations into the shadow of the legalization-centered approach. Consider, for example, how Mahoney, Bush and other backers of the failed McCain-Kennedy immigration reform package of 2006 to 2007, were willing to “trade off” the more than 700 pages of punitive immigration policy—increased incarceration, deportation, militarization of the border—for less than 100 pages of punitive approaches to legalization contained in the bill.
While morality cannot be legislated, moral considerations can and must be part of immigration legislation. This is the way it was before the mid-1990s, the period when Washington decided to de-emphasize moral arguments in favor of the realpolitikal legalization approach provided by high-powered pollsters and public relations consultants. This was when the now familiar immigration reform jargon—”smart and tough,” “practical” and “comprehensive”—entered our national discourse on immigration reform. I still remember how uncomfortable I felt during teleconferences organized by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the National Immigration Forum (NIF) and other Washington groups at the time. Hearing pollsters and advocates tell us, “Moral arguments don’t work with the voters,” made me nervous. Hearing them then call for “necessary tradeoffs” (code for accepting even more punitive immigration policies in exchange for legalization) as part of “comprehensive immigration reform” scared me.