Base Immigration Reform On Respect, Not Fear

When is Washington going to learn that no immigration reforms can work as long as immigrants continue to fear and distrust the very immigration system meant to serve them?

Eighteen years after the 1986 overhaul of immigration laws offered amnesty to 7 million undocumented immigrants, up to 10 million people are without papers in the country. Provisions put in place then to correct the system are clearly not working. Another overhaul of the old INS, before it was absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security, has also left the agency as dysfunctional as ever.

Well-intentioned as President Bush's latest immigration plan may be, it is doomed to failure as long as immigration authorities loom as figures of fear to most immigrants.

The Bush proposal offers three-year, renewable permits to undocumented workers to live and work in the United States. To implement the plan, up to 10 million people who have lived in the shadows, some for many years, are expected to step forward, reveal numerous details about theirs lives and trust that immigration authorities will not use the information against them.

Considering the agency's recent history, they would be insane to do so.

Just a year ago, non-citizen Moslem men were asked to trust the system, step forward and comply with the Special Alien Registration Program. Many who did so were interrogated, arrested, detained and slated for possible deportation.

The program caused such an uproar among immigrants and proved so useless in combating terrorism that authorities themselves scrapped it. It remains, however, a fresh and bitter memory among those who may be asked again to trust in the system.

In 2002, the INS, with its fearsome reputation among immigrant communities, was split into two separate law enforcement and service sections, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE) and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The intent was to serve non-criminal immigrants without intimidation and dread. Yet this reform, taking place in a post-9/11 atmosphere as the agency was being absorbed by Department of Homeland Security, has resulted in two law enforcement arms whose main purpose is to find and deport the "bad apples."

Many immigrants who show up for interviews to gain such benefits as permanent residence or citizenship must witness the spectacle of applicants ahead of them being arrested and handcuffed as they beg and plead not to be taken away. According to the provisions of the Patriot Act and current immigration practices, such people may easily be flown to a detention center away from their homes and summarily deported, even for simple visa violations.

Particularly chilling are reports of Iranian immigrants who were flown to a detention center in Florence, Ariz., to be interviewed by representatives from the Islamic Republic of Iran. After having fled religious and political persecution at home, they came face to face with their tormentors halfway across the globe.

Such stories spread throughout immigrant communities like wildfire, further perpetuating a culture of fear. Is this what living the American dream has come to?

Congress, while considering the Bush plan, should take a good, hard look at USCIS to make sure that, true to its name, it functions as a service agency rather than a law enforcement organization. No immigrant invited for an interview at the USCIS should be subject to arrest, detention or deportation. The agency should only screen and interview immigrants it knows to be non-criminals, and refer those with criminal records to the BICE, the enforcement arm.

Such bureaucratic solutions, however, are of little consequence until Homeland Security gets rid of the old INS attitude that considers immigrants as enemies rather than clients. Whether this can be accomplished during a proclaimed "war on terror," within an agency whose primary function is security of the "homeland," remains to be seen.

Immigrants are among the most vulnerable of people in this country. Many struggle with English and have little understanding of their legal rights. Respect for their dignity, their human and civil rights is the cornerstone for good immigration legislation and the key to its successful implementation.

PNS contributor Behrouz Saba (behrouzsa@aol.com) writes on American and Middle Eastern political, social and cultural issues.

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