Tear Down the House: Why We Need Comprehensive Immigration Reform

 Before I start talking about how law enforcement figures into immigration reform, I’d like to give you some basic background on what comprehensive immigration reform really is, from my perspective. Comprehensive immigration reform is large-scale systemic reform encompassing all aspects of social, political and legal life here in the United States. It involves a complete overhaul of the immigration system, from entry to citizenship.

Imagine you have an old house that needs to be renovated, but instead of working on one room at a time over a many years, you tear the entire house down to the foundation and rebuild. The end product is a beautiful new home in which all rooms work and function well together, rather than a beat-up house with a great kitchen or living room. As those of you who have lived through a home remodeling already know, the tasks are daunting, but the payoff is immeasurable.

The same thing applies to comprehensive immigration reform. We’ve tried fixing immigration with Band-Aids, but it doesn’t work. At this point, we need a wholesale renovation that creates a new system that works for everyone. Retooling immigration enforcement—which in recent years has been heavily criticized in places like Suffolk County—is an essential part of the reform process. Here’s what you need to know:

Currently, the enforcement apparatus of immigration law is in a troublesome state of affairs. Recent changes in policy and enforcement priorities have created a system of haphazard enforcement and piecemeal policies. In some areas of the country, local municipalities have usurped power and adopted their own set of enforcement laws dealing with immigrants while some have announced that they will ignore federal law altogether.

Just look at Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s antics in Arizona. He’s consistently profiled Hispanics in immigration raids and ignored federal mandates in regards to immigration enforcement. In other areas of the country, neighboring municipalities in the same county have polar opposite policies regarding local police enforcement of federal immigration law. All of this leads to widespread confusion, mistrust, and uncertainty that affects citizens, immigrants, and law enforcement officers alike.

There is also a misplaced belief that immigrant round-ups and hard-line immigration enforcement make communities safer. But in a March 5, 2009 blog that I posted on this site, I discussed how “tough on immigration” enforcement policies and postures can actually lead to decreased safety for the larger communities in which new immigrants settle. In that piece, I argued that if criminalized, new immigrant communities will logically become distrustful of law enforcement and will no longer call the police to report crimes. This can have a disastrous effect on victimization in those communities and can lead to crime sprees as predators target these communities. The end result of this enforcement strategy is decreased security and public safety for all communities.

Comprehensive immigration reform can stem this tide by creating an enforcement scheme that is both effective and respectful of local law enforcement’s need to serve all members of the community. First and foremost, the enforcement of immigration laws must be placed squarely in the hands of the federal government. This will not only bolster public safety and homeland security, but it will also let local law enforcement partner with the communities they serve—documented or undocumented. In order for this kind of setup to succeed, the federal government will have to make a serious commitment to enforcement rather than just replicating the perfunctory enforcement policies of the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization System.

Once a system is created that has some enforcement teeth, then pressure will be relieved from local law enforcement bodies so that they can return to the business at hand: public safety. This doesn’t mean that police will be devoid of any enforcement activities. There will need to be a new system whereby undocumented criminal offenders are slated for deportation, since, currently, this system is also broken and in need of repair.

Part of the federal mandate will also have to be a more robust visa tracking system. Nearly half of all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today entered the country legally, but have overstayed their visa. Clearly, there are currently no incentives to follow the law and remain legally here and within status. If we have a more robust tracking system, these individuals will be more likely to remain within legal status or seek permanent residence so that they will no longer be considered illegal.

In addition, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants must be clearly spelled out (see Omar Chaudhry’s piece on that here). The volumes of codes and laws dealing with immigration need to be streamlined and reduced into a logical pathway with recognizable markers—like background checks, fines, and payment of back taxes—along the journey. As an applicant for citizenship reaches each of these markers, they will be demonstrating a will to follow the law even though they’re not a citizen yet. Clearly, those immigrants following the pathway should not be targeted for enforcement.

Comprehensive immigration reform in the manner discussed above will greatly benefit Long Island. In terms of law enforcement, having a federal agency with true power and proper enforcement priorities will lead to a greater level of safety and homeland security. This will also relieve the pressure on local law enforcement and local municipalities to enter into the immigration enforcement fray. Streamlining immigration law and making the pathway to citizenship clearer will make new immigrants respectful of the law, since they’ll need to be law-abiding and follow a certain process to become citizens.

When we talk about reforming immigration policy, we need to recognize that the law is the foundation that this country is built upon. It is our outward guideline, the rules to the game. If the rules are not clear, then no one will follow them. Comprehensive immigration reform will provide this clarity.


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