Immigration

The Right-Wing Hardliner Immigration Approach Would Create a Police State -- Is That What Those Supposed Freedom Lovers Want?

Immigration in America would take a disastrous course if the 'enforcement only' crowd kept getting its way. And Americans would have to suffer for it.

Last year, the federal government filed more charges for immigration violations than all other crimes and misdemeanors combined -- it charged more people for breaking our immigration laws than it charged drug traffickers, bank robbers, counterfeiters and everything else under the sun. Yet right-wing lawmakers and pundits who oppose a comprehensive re-think of our immigration system continue to insist the opposite is true: that the government is just sitting on its hands.

It’s really a lie of epic proportion, a distortion so great that it turns reality on its head. Yet immigration hardliners in the Congress and their lickspittles in the right-wing media have used it to convince a sizable chunk of the population that the federal government refuses, or at least has shown little zeal, to “enforce the law.” A Google search for “federal government won't enforce immigration laws” returns 25 million hits; the narrative is often used to justify harsh local ordinances like Arizona’s draconian SB 1070.

The government's preferred approach -- which in the real world has been tried and proven to be a complete disaster -- is to address the problem by demanding more and more law enforcement while otherwise maintaining an almost universally loathed status quo. The strategy is known as “enforcement-only.”

In reality, the federal government wastes an enormous and ever-increasing amount of resources -- completely disproportional to the seriousness of the offense -- trying to enforce our immigration laws within a deeply flawed system, and it has had no appreciable impact on the size of the undocumented population. That’s because unlawful immigration to the United States is a structural issue. We have a system that allows high-skilled tech workers from India to migrate legally, but not uneducated agricultural workers from Mexico. Our southern border is one of the longest in the world; and it divides two economies with the greatest differential in wealth on the planet.

Americans are addicted to cheap labor, and see hiring unauthorized workers as a victimless crime. NPR recently profiled citizens who admitted to hiring undocumented workers. One of them, “Annette,” explained that “American prices are inflated,” so paying her worker a lower wage was justified. She said that if her employee had stayed in Mexico, “he would work in a maquiladora in Juarez, and he would make $1 an hour or $2 an hour, whereas here he can make $500 in a matter of five hours … So I have no problem” with it.

But the greatest obstacle to enforcement-only being effective (leaving aside the question of whether it is humane -- it isn’t), is that we live in a free country. The snake-oil salesmen pushing the strategy as a real solution to the problem of unauthorized immigration would have you believe that we can “crack down” on the 4 percent of the population living here without papers without impacting the remaining 96 percent. That’s nonsense -- enforcement-only could work, but only in a very different kind of society. It could work if we were all issued national ID cards and gave up the ability to move freely within the country without being stopped at checkpoints and asked for our papers. North Korea doesn’t have a big problem with undocumented immigrants; enforcement-only can certainly be effective if we want to live in a police state.

And while immigration hardliners lament the supposed inaction of the federal government, the police state they’re begging for is exactly what we’re seeing take shape in nascent form today. We’re not there yet, but the frog is in the pot and the temperature is gradually increasing.

That’s the point -- the narrative that the Feds simply won’t enforce the law plays to people's distrust of government and anxieties about the loss of sovereignty in the era of globalization. With heightened attention on immigration, it’s a narrative that allows conservative lawmakers to advance a larger agenda -- justifying calls for an expanded security state, with more surveillance, increased police actions and an almost endless series of increases in Homeland Security spending. The private prison and private prison contractors have laughed all the way to the bank -- the huge number of immigrants being locked up has created an industry-saving bonanza for companies like Halliburton, the GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America  -- while the undocumented population continued to rise up until the economic crash hit in 2008.

And it continues apace. Last week, the Senate authorized $600 million more for the militarization of our southern border, sending unmanned aerial drones to sniff out potential gardeners and dishwashers in the arid desert.

The Biggest Lie

To understand just how egregiously false claims that the federal government isn’t enforcing the law really are, one simply has to compare the narrative with the hard data. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security apprehended almost 800,000 foreign nationals for immigration violations. Nearly 380,000 were detained, while 359,000 unauthorized immigrants were deported, breaking the record set in 2008. That broke the record set in 2007, which eclipsed the record set in 2006, which beat the record set in 2005, a year in which deportations edged past the record number set in 2004 (PDF). According to an analysis by the Washington Post, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) "holds more detainees a night than Clarion Hotels have guests, operates nearly as many vehicles as Greyhound has buses and flies more people each day than do many small U.S. airlines."

At one time, the Feds mostly prosecuted unauthorized immigrants who had violent criminal records. Nonviolent offenders were generally deported after civil, rather than criminal proceedings. But in 2005, the Bush administration, under pressure from its base, launched “Operation Streamline,” which mandates that the federal government prosecute all immigration offenses, including nonviolent offenders crossing a border illegally -- people seeking work.

That effort comes with an opportunity cost. According to the Immigration Policy Center, “While immigration prosecutions continue to rise, other federal criminal prosecutions have decreased. The prioritization of immigration has made it difficult for law enforcement agents to pursue other more serious crimes.”

According to Joanna Lydgate, a researcher with the University of Calfiornia’s Warren Institute, “From 2002 to 2009, federal magistrate judges along the U.S.-Mexico border saw their misdemeanor immigration caseloads skyrocket. Criminal prosecutions of petty immigration-related offenses increased by more than 340% in the border district courts.” According to the New York Times, “On heavy days, single courtrooms along the border process illegal immigrants on an industrial scale, sometimes more than 200 in a day.”

Those are the facts; those suggesting the federal government isn’t doing its best to enforce our arcane immigration laws are either lying through their teeth or are clueless about the issue.

So Who Exactly is 'Pro-Illegal-Immigrant'?

Advocates of using more law enforcement as the primary mechanism of controlling immigration to the Unites States often portray their opponents as “pro-illegal-immigrant.” It’s a necessary straw man -- without it, they'd be left to argue that we should not reform a deeply dysfunctional immigration system and we should not look at the pressures and rewards that motivate Americans to hire undocumented workers and immigrants to bypass the legal system -- we should just arrest, detain and deport more people.

But it is also ironic to portray people trying to come up with workable solutions that might actually decrease the undocumented population -- people fighting to bring unauthorized immigrants in line with our legal system -- as being “pro-illegal-immigration.”

The truth is that those taking the hardest line against unauthorized immigration are in fact “pro-illegal immigrant.” It’s not that they sympathize with people forced to leave their home countries in search of work -- the economic refugees who make up the lion’s share of the illegal population. To the contrary, they often demonize and vilify them as invaders, or worse. But the hardliners are steadfast in their opposition to any serious fix to our immigration system. By insisting on a hopelessly failed approach, they’ve helped maintain a large unauthorized population.

Having a lot of “illegal immigrants” suits their agenda -- their patrons get a cheap and exploitable labor force; their demagoguery helps them raise money and animates their political base; and they’re able to distract people from the real issues plaguing our economy by stoking a cheap and xenophobic brand of populism. Hardliners are anything but pro-migrant, but they are the ones who can accurately be described as “pro-illegal-immigrant.”

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. Drop him an email or Follow him on Twitter.