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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Immigrants: Punish or Promote?

We are, in some sense, a “punitive” society.  We often like to see certain people “get what’s coming to them.”  We talk about, and have indeed obsessed upon, “law and order,” which was the rallying cry for a whole movement in the 60’s used to vilify a concurrent movement toward civil rights for black people.  It was not only a movement endorsed by mostly conservative politicians, it involved moderates and liberals alike, including some members of the black caucus in Congress.  And, of course, we have invented “Guantanamo”, and used drone attacks, as reminders of “what we do to terrorists.”  

Built into so many of our laws, passed by a Congress that sometimes cannot see the forest for the trees, are punitive measures that do not fit well with the norms and standards that bespeak positive attitudes: forgiveness, second chances, incentives, affirmative action.  Take the very glaring example of  the “War on Drugs.”  What was that all about?  It turns out, based on the incarceration rates, that it was a thinly-veiled attempt at putting the “negro” in his place, for it has been used to put more black young men in jail, removed from society and its opportunities, than one would ever expect.  Read “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander: a brilliant exposition of how incarceration is the new Jim Crow movement against Black men especially.

It was, she says, Barry Goldwater who laid the foundation for the “get tough on crime” movement that would emerge full-blown years later.”  Turns out, Richard Nixon and George Wallace both made “law and order” a central theme of their campaigns, and together they garnered 57% of the popular vote.  But, it was not until the 1980s that this conservative revolution was in full development.  Crime and welfare were the major themes of Ronald Reagan’s campaign rhetoric, and it was October 1982 when he announced his “War on Drugs.”  By waging a ‘war on drugs‘, Reagan managed to provide a vehicle for a fierce punitive backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, and against African-American males in particular. 

In spite of the tremendous community spirit and unselfish and heroic acts shown in the city and environs of Boston in recent days, we now have to consider what will happen with immigration reform.  There will be some, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, who will want to “punish” or “exclude” Chechen’s (and others of Islamic background ) from any list allowed to work toward citizenship; or even allowed to come here at all.  There are already other voices urging delay in consideration of this legislation.  Delay is their way of killing the measure entirely. We must not allow such negative rhetoric to drown rationality not while we still have a chance to promote alternatives to punishment with positive amendments.

I have just a few things to say about two items in the immigration legislation unveiled to the Senate recently.  One: 13 years is way too long a time for people to have to pursue a path to citizenship, unless a way is devised for undocumented immigrants to exchange up to four community service years for the extra four years of provisional status.  Two: a point system for allowing certain people to advance toward  a visa is a good thought but not if it is based on negative measures some politician thought up! 

Is it really necessary to be so punitive toward people who came here illegally?  I find it offensive that we cannot find other ways to forge a path to citizenship besides fines, having no more than 3 misdemeanors on your record, learning the English language, and having an understanding of civics.  Whatever is behind such provisions other than stereotypes, punishment, and lack of understanding of who these folks are and what they want to be.  Is every undocumented alien a felon?  Are they all non-English-speakers; are they all intent on bilking the government for welfare benefits?  Do legislators have a handle on who they are?  Do they even have statistics on, or testimony from, these folks?    

Why do we want to deny them a path to citizenship based on real merit and their real contributions?  Why must we punish them?  Because they broke the law, is the answer most heard.  And which of us would not break a few laws to protect our families; to seek a new life; to experience the dignity of a paycheck and to feed our kids?  The illegality we are speaking of could be a forgivable offense, especially if someone who made that illegal entry has contributed something of value to his or her community and new nation. 

That’s what I think is missing from this legislation: a path to citizenship based on an affirmation that all immigrants - undocumented or documented - have something to give to this nation and to their communities.  Indeed, if we want good citizens, we want people dedicated to the welfare of their families, their schools, their communities, their states and their nation.  You don’t build good citizenship by punishing people; you build it by giving them opportunities to do good things, to create and construct, to bring talents to bear, to raise good families, to be part of communities that build-up people, not tear them down.  I cringe from the lack of creativity and boldness and community-mindedness that results from thinking fines, no public benefits, and “security triggers”.

Here’s what I’m thinking. First, why not find out what positive things have been done by those being considered for citizenship.  Who are they?  What contributions have they already made and what will they make as citizens?  What have they done to impact their families and communities in a positive way?  Second, let’s find out what they’d like to do or be. What do they seek to do with their lives?  Are there nascent medical practitioners among them?  Or Entrepreneurs?  Are there some willing to take vocational training to advance their skill-development.  Third, let’s set them on a path to service, not just to citizenship.  Let’s reduce the number of years they have to spend at this arduous task by crediting them a year for every year of community or national service they perform as a volunteer, as a member of the armed forces, as a trusted and loyal worker in a factory or farm or wherever.  Fourth, let’s not treat every person as part of a group.  Let’s build a path to citizenship for each individual so every individual has a plan: a point by point map toward the goal of citizenship.  You say that takes money.  Not necessarily.  It takes people, and there are people everywhere who are willing to volunteer their time and effort to help others become citizens.  So maybe every immigrant who needs  a mentor and guide to traverse this citizenship landscape should have one.  Let’s involve AmeriCorps and Vista; let’s involve Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions and RSVP, let’s use the Teacher Corps and youth organizations and every volunteer agency we can enlist to assist individuals toward their goal.  Let the candidates for citizenship learn from the experts: the men and women volunteers who know how to make citizenship meaningful.

We want and need good citizens.  We do not need people languishing in a system built to punish them for coming here in the first place.    They came here for a myriad of reasons. They came here to find hope, occupations, a better life, to be with relatives.  Let’s not assume because they did it outside the regular channels that makes them criminals.  We have to eschew the images we have of “illegals”  and “wetbacks” and  “lawbreakers”.  We have got to get down to basics.  We are dealing with human beings with the same aspirations, dreams and needs that all of us have.  And, what is more, with the same ambitions, talents and potential that is part of our make-up.  Let us find ways to citizenship that recognize the positive aspects of those among us who long for that day when they can take the oath and declare that they are loyal citizens of this great country.

Let me be more specific now about the legislation.  I think a six-year provisional status to begin with is not an entirely bad idea.  Even the combined fine of $1,500 has some merit.  But we need to have ways to pay that fine in other than cash.   What can a person do that will be equal in value to that $1,500?  How can they use their time and talents to contribute something of value to their communities?  A fine is punishment.  A thing of value bestowed is a gift.  Let them give gifts to their communities in lieu of a fine.  Let them give back, and if they can show that they have already produced a thing of value in their communities, let that count.  The same concept applies to the responsibility for paying back taxes.  But in the latter case, the in-kind service ought to be expanded to include some very specific community projects that actually save the taxpayer money, or that can generate money to be placed in the U.S. Treasury.  For instance, why can’t some undocumented immigrants become VISTA or AmeriCorps volunteers themselves? 

The add-on of renewed provisional status for another 4 years smells of over-kill and punishment.  What is the purpose of this extra four years: to prove one’s merit?   If that hasn’t been done in the first 6 years, it probably isn’t going to happen!  I find no rationale for this second step of 4 more years of provisional status except to pay another fine, and to introduce the absurdity of external “triggers.”  That is why I have proposed the concept of accepting community service years (involving varying forms of service) up to four years in lieu of this second level of provisional status.

And just what are these “triggers?”  Well, they essentially have nothing to do directly with the immigrants, except the impact they can have on their progress toward citizenship.  First, the government has to put into place a broader security and fencing plan within 6 months before undocumented aliens will be eligible to apply for RPI status.  And, for them to be able to apply for visas, the plan must reach a goal of 100% surveillance of the borders and a 90% apprehension rate in the border’s most high-risk areas. Moreover, new entry-exit systems must also be in place for employers; a process that could take up to 5 years.  So, legislators have chosen to mollify the “law and order” crowd who simply want the borders protected.  These “triggers” are something over which the immigrants have no control; they are at the mercy of the government’s ability, and willingness, to get the job done.

There are some who say that the 10-year provisional span is necessary so that it’s not faster for undocumented individuals to get a green card than it is for people trying to enter this country legally.  An even more bureaucratic reason is so that a backlog of legal immigrants can be cleared before letting anyone else in line. And then, there’s the economic factor. Such a lengthy term makes the overall process cheaper because the longer people remain on provisional status, the less government needs to spend on benefits (but the immigrants will be obligated to pay current and back taxes!).  Once again, not a very creative solution to some fabricated ideological problems. 

A  potentially unpopular thought just occurred to me: why don’t we ask undocumented aliens how long they feel it should take to get a green card; what they think is fair in light of the wait line for documented persons, and what benefits they would be willing to forego for a period of time?  I can hear the cries of conservatives now -- you can’t ask immigrants, they’ll just take unfair advantage; you can’t ask “illegal” immigrants their opinions - they either haven’t got any or they’ll take you to the cleaners.  I happen to believe that most people, when given the chance to set personal goals, and to decide on actions and opportunities that affect them, turn out to be quite conservative and fair in their responses.  But whatever the outcomes, the input of undocumented (and documented) aliens to the process is vital for determining their commitments, their hopes, and their goals. 

Finally, there is something called the “merit-based visa” in this legislation.  A first example of this includes people who have been in this country for 10 years or longer, and who are waiting in the employment or family backlog.  This legislation makes them eligible for a green card.  No points involved. What an interesting way to deal with bureaucratic backlog!  Instead of funding adequate numbers of agents (or enlisting the help of volunteers) to deal with day-to-day processing of people and documents,  Congress wants to unclog the system by a blanket assignment of green cards, and then return to the same understaffing problem that resulted in a backlog in the first place.  Legislators who want results or solutions, but are not willing to pay for the positions needed to bring about those outcomes, are simply incompetent planners and irresponsible budget-cutters.  Across-the-board spending cuts, rather than targeted reductions or spending limits, result in backlogs.  It’s that simple.

The second example is a merit-point system based on what you are before getting to come to this country.  High-skilled workers with college or advanced degrees plus low-skilled workers in agriculture and certain other programs, would go through the merit-based system, which is designed to reward the most deserving candidates.  Or, just possibly (and cynically), it’s designed to reward those who possess what is most needed at the moment by employers, perhaps to increase the profits of large corporations and farm conglomerates.  Well, so be it, but can’t we find other reasons to assign merit points?  maybe like some of the service ideas I proposed above?

This legislation is like much of what we see today from Congress: it‘s compromised so much by competing ideologies that it is watered down and sanitized, making it bland and rather meaningless; plus, it embodies some attitudes that ought not to see the light of day.  It is not creative, bold or innovative, and, in the end, it does not champion the cause or the goals of immigrants.  Nor does it adequately address the needs of a nation that is built on  broadly-based immigration policy.  It displays far too much interest in resolving problems of ideology rather than problems associated with immigration and immigrants. Laws written by legislators who listen only to special interests on every issue, are not laws that are passed for the welfare of the people, but for the advancement of a minority of Plutocrats.  It’s time to change that unhealthy scenario.

There is a song sung at a particular football venue called “We are the Champions”.  Too bad Congress can’t adopt that appellation and apply it to themselves.  Unfortunately, they are not championing anyone except those who can pay their way: lobbyists, lawyers, CEOs, the 1% and other special interests like big banks, and big oil.  Immigration reform is almost too important to be left in such hands, but there is no choice.  So, let us be clear: with the lack of Champions in the House and Senate, it is up to the ordinary citizens of this country to wrest the levers of government from the Plutocrats, and to champion immigration reform that meets immigrant needs and desires; assists them through the process with an individual plan of achievement, and rewards them for community and national service that contributes to the larger society.   Let us propel them toward their worthy goal, not punish them for wanting to be United States citizens.

(Written in fond memory of Cesar Chavez who I met on a plane going to Syracuse NY in the 1970’s and with whom I was privileged to be engaged in conversation for a considerable time. His dignity and commitment, his words and his message, must not be forgotten!).