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Working In These Times

Friday, Dec 23, 2011, 9:13 am

The Immigration Debate at Year’s End: Conflict and Contradiction

BY Kari Lydersen

Then-Republican Presidential Candidate Herman Cain speaks during a news conference with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio at Arpaio's headquarters on Oct. 17, 2011 in Phoenix. Arpaio now faces federal allegations of civil rights violations.   (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

President Obama promised immigration reform within his first 100 days in office, but needless to say that didn’t happen. Now immigration is yet again a hot election issue—in the Republican presidential primary race, and surely in the general election after that.

Several of the Republican candidates have surprisingly moderate records and/or positions on immigration, but they are trying to obscure this in order to cater to hardcore anti-immigrant voters or generally come off as extremely conservative. Ironically a hardline anti-immigration message is out of step with the majority of Americans across the political spectrum, according to an analysis of five recent polls by the Center for American Progress.

Meanwhile, draconian immigration enforcement policies are increasingly under siege, with the federal civil rights violation allegations against Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the police department in East Haven, Conn.; economic and social stress in Alabama following the state’s imposition of an extreme anti-immigrant law; and the news that many U.S. citizens have been detained—in some cases for up to a year—under the highly controversial Secure Communities federal program. And of course, last month Arizona voters recalled State Senate President Russell Pearce, chief architect of the state's infamous SB 1070 anti-immigration law.

While racial profiling of immigrants in East Haven has not been high-profile nationally until now, the Justice Department charges against Arpaio confirm what local officials and advocates have long been saying—that the Maricopa County sheriff's department flagrantly racially profiles Latinos, and that Latinos suffer civil rights and human rights abuses and discrimination in county detention.The department is also investigating alleged sex crimes in Arpaio's jails.

On a press call last week, Center for American Progress Action Fund immigration policy and advocacy director Angela Kelley noted that Arpaio has endorsed Republican candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, and also praised Mitt Romney. She said:

It does appear that Sheriff Arpaio's rein of terror is on its last legs, something that we applaud...We know Arpaio isn't a stranger to politics...There are very close ties between Arpaio and the leading Republican candidates.

As it issued the report, the Justice Department revoked the state’s 287(g) program deputizing police with immigration enforcement powers. A grand jury investigation is continuing, and if Arpaio doesn’t enter a settlement with the Justice Department to turn his office around, a federal lawsuit and takeover of the department would likely ensue.

Arpaio has until January 4 to announce his intent. He has countered that he is the victim of civil rights abuses by protesters, who he said are "demonstrating in front of my building, calling me every kind of name."

In 1997, the Justice Department entered a settlement with Arpaio over civil rights violations in Maricopa County jails; but at the time Arpaio defiantly promised that nothing would change…and critics and federal officials say that indeed little or nothing has.

In a statement on the recent DOJ report, Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva (D) said:

Sheriff Arpaio believes physical appearance is probable cause to stop and question individuals about their immigration status. Even after a Department of Justice investigation has told him otherwise, he continues to believe there’s no issue here.

There’s nothing fair, equal or constitutional about racial profiling. His obsessive, politically motivated assault on Hispanics has destroyed public trust in his office and put innocent lives in danger. Federal law enforcement officials are right to name his failed tenure for what it is, and I hope he takes the honorable route by resigning immediately.

Even as one arm of the federal government has lashed out at Maricopa County and East Haven officers for profiling immigrants, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency continues to doggedly pursue its controversial Secure Communities program, which essentially mandates that the fingerprints of anyone arrested be used to check immigration status.

Various major cities and states including Illinois, Minnesota, San Francisco and New York City have said they will not participate in the program, which ICE officials contend is mandatory. In November more than 30 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter calling for the termination of Secure Communities.

Recent media reports described legal residents and U.S. citizens being jailed erroneously under the program, with their pleas to verify their citizenship ignored by jailers who claimed they had no jurisdiction.

Secure Communities was billed as a program to deport the "worst of the worst," immigrants guilty of serious crimes. But so far the program has placed many people into deportation proceedings who are accused—often with the charges later dropped—of only minor violations.

When police officers racially profile Latinos, as the DOJ alleges they did in East Haven, the disproportionate impacts of Secure Communities are compounded many-fold.

Pablo Alvardo, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said in a statement:

The damning report filed in Maricopa County last week had been called for and expected for years. But what the Department of Justice report in East Haven exposes is a national epidemic of civil rights violations that must call into question the federal immigration programs that rely on local police whose enforcement practices are increasingly discriminatory.

Most Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, oppose mass deportation of immigrants who have lived law-abiding lives and are willing to learn English, according to the Center for American Progress analysis of five recent polls including ones by Fox News, the Pew Research Center and Latino Decisions.

The polls basically all found that a majority of people of all political stripes, including the Tea Party, support a path to legalization for many immigrants currently here and oppose mass deportations, with many people agreeing that increased border security and legalization for those already here are not contradictory concepts. A poll of Iowa Republican caucus-goers found that 58 percent agree that immigrants create jobs, while only 39 percent disagree.

An article on the center’s website says:

Put simply, these polls illustrate that the ideological extremism of the hard right is well outside the mainstream pragmatism of the American people. Delving even further into the data, it turns out that no matter who you are—rich or poor; liberal or conservative; a college graduate or not; white, black, or brown; or even a member of the Tea Party—these results still hold true. And they are only the latest in polling that stretches back years, illustrating that America is far more in line with real solutions to immigration reform than are nativist right-wingers.

On the Center for American Progress press call, America's Voice deputy director Lynn Tramonte said:

Support is actually growing for common sense immigration reform. This is completelly disconnected from the way politicians and pundits in Washington report this issue. What is wrong with this picture? Why don't politicians understand what's behind these polls?

The answer she said:

They're looking for easy answers—they want black-white, yes-no, either-or. On immigration it's not like that. It's not like are you for enforcement or for reform of the laws. As a candidate you don't have to choose between appealing to the general population and Latino voters. On immigration it's always both "and" -- voters want smart enforcement but they also want reform - they know we're not going to deport 11 million undocumented workers and their families and they don't want to live in a country that would do that.

A separate 2010 report on the Center for American Progress website by Dr. Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda estimates how much economic stimulus would actually be created by legalizing immigrants, using the 1986 "amnesty" enacted by Ronald Reagan as an example. (Read the report here).

The historical experience of legalization under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act indicates that comprehensive immigration reform would raise wages, increase consumption, create jobs, and generate additional tax revenue. Even though IRCA was implemented during an economic recession characterized by high unemployment, it still helped raise wages and spurred increases in educational, home, and small-business investments by newly legalized immigrants. Taking the experience of IRCA as a starting point, we estimate that comprehensive immigration reform would yield at least $1.5 trillion in cumulative U.S. gross domestic product over 10 years.

In my own conversations with people about immigration in Arizona, Illinois, Colorado, California and other states with large and long-standing Latino immigrant populations, I feel like most people have a thoughtful yet often confused and conflicted view of immigration, how it has affected their lives and what should be done about it.

In a miners bar in an old mining town in economically depressed central Arizona earlier this month, I talked with two Mexican-American and German-American residents—both former miners—about immigration. The Mexican American said he wants much stricter immigration controls to stop an influx of immigrants that he sees as "just too much, too fast," though he points out he is Mexican American, the area formerly was part of Mexico and people historically crossed the border freely to work in the thriving copper mining and other industries.

"They should deport the German immigrants to make more room for the Mexicans," he said to his friend, a joke which pointed to the long history of immigrants from around the world in Arizona, like the rest of the country.

Many of the Mexican immigrants who had flocked to Arizona for construction jobs in the once-booming housing industry have returned to Mexico or otherwise left the state since the economic crisis, and the implementation of draconian state law SB 1070. In Arizona in particular, the current dearth of jobs can hardly be blamed on immigrants but rather on the mortgage crisis created by irresponsible bankers and regulators.

The illogical and hate-fueled nature that defines the hard edge of the anti-immigrant sentiment in Arizona was symbolized for me in the slogans on a camper parked by the side of a state highway between Flagstaff and the Navajo Reservation last year—meant as a mobile billboard. The collage of hand-painted sentences and slogans warned of an invasion of "aborti-fascists" who were prolifically procreating after crossing the border, while at the same time mandating abortion and fascism.

It seems the Republican presidential primary candidates are using such sentiments as their benchmark, at least in their proclamations, rather than the far more common nuanced, sometimes muddled views Americans do have about immigration. Since a close campaign hardly lends itself to sensible, humane, reasoned debate about complicated issues, one can only hope that the candidates’ bluster does more to highlight the illogical nature of these hardline arguments than to feed the hysteria and hate underlying them.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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