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The Immigration Debate: What's at stake

What kind of nation do we want to be?
 
 
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If you just read the major newspaper accounts, it's hard to pick out what's really at stake in the current immigration legislation battle and what's just partisan game playing.*

Here's the summary of the debate so far: There are currently approximately eleven million people in this country who did not register with the United States government when they enetered into the country. The majority of these, sixty percent, have lived here for over five years. Another thirty percent have lived here for between two and five years. These people work, pay taxes, and contribute to society.

Why is this a problem? The basic problem is that these folks are being exploited. For the most part, these people are taking jobs nobody else wants and getting paid less than U.S. citizens. They have little or no access to health care and risk being deported if they go to the emergency room. As my colleague Maria points out, immigrants are more likely to be hired for some jobs (mostly in construction and childcare) but their presence also helps the economy and creates new jobs, with the overall impact being that they have either a positive or neutral affect on the economy.

The other problem is that when people are paid below-legal wages, nobody benefits; not the worker who doesn't get hired because someone will do it for less, not the union that can't negotiate for its clients, and not the family that has to survive on the below-poverty level wages.

Note: no one, not even the most rabid of fanatics, is saying this is a question related to homeland security or terrorism.

The House has passed a reactionary bill that calls for deporting all illegal immigrants as felons, regardless of how long they've lived in this country, whether or not they contribute, and what and would make it a crime to offer them assistance of any kind. This would include the deportation of people like Roberto Salazar, a 30-year-old father of two who has been in this country since he was eight years old, the likely imprisonment of his wife, U.S. citizen Anna Salazar, who could be charged with"harboring a felon" and the placing of their children in foster care.

If a version of the House bill passes, we would officially need to change the name of this country. Mark Fiore gives a short cartoon history lesson here. The point is that while anti-immigrant sentiment is as old as the first immigrants, if we actually turn that immigrant-phobia into law, we've altered the DNA of this country. Although the United States has never fully accepted itself as a nation of immigrants, that's a large part of who we are. If we formally disown that part, we might as well tear down the Statue of Liberty and put up a barbed wire wall around the whole lower 48. (Perhaps Hawaii and Alaska could have their own separate walls, to make sure no migrant whales from Mexico come swimming by.)

Luckily, the Senate seems to be on the point of realizing this, approaching a compromise today that, while flawed, would at least provide a quicker path for legalization for those who have been in this country for over five years. That would be movement toward a solution for some of the millions of immigrants already here. As for the immigrants of the future, it's unclear whether they'll be navigating a 15-foot fence.

Rachel Neumann is Rights & Liberties Editor at AlterNet.