There are approximately 11 million people living in the United States who, depending on one’s perspective, are “undocumented,” “unauthorized,” “irregular,” or “illegal.” One of them is Tania Chairez, a courageous woman from Phoenix and sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. She is one of many DREAM activists to have come out of the shadows over the past year to declare that she is “undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic.” Two weeks ago Tania wrote a powerful op-ed in the student newspaper that has received considerable attention both on campus and beyond. Sadly, but not surprisingly, many of the more than one hundred comments posted in response to her op-ed were uninformed, unproductive, and downright ugly, attacking Tania and her family and calling for her and all other “illegal aliens” to be deported.
It is time to come to terms with reality: in addition to being logistically impossible, mass deportations wreak havoc on families and communities across the country, not to mention the economy.
Economic downturns and national crises only exacerbate the scapegoating of immigrants. Immigrants steal jobs! They drive wages down! They don’t learn English! And they don’t assimilate! These falsehoods could just as easily describe nativists’ fears about Italian, Greek, and Russian immigrants in the 1910s and 1920s. As numerous studies—and time—have proven, these were, and are, unfounded fears. Moreover, this simplified narrative disregards the fact that today, as in the past, immigrants come to the United States for any number of reasons: to flee from persecution or natural disaster, reunite with family, study, visit, or work.
Immigration policy since 9/11 has become so closely tied to national security that there is little-to-no political will to enact serious reform. Recent changes in policy have been harsh rather than humane, and have made clear that the well-being of immigrants is anything but a priority. Instead of accepting migration as a reality and recognizing migrants’ many important contributions to revitalizing urban, suburban, and rural communities, the federal government has wasted billions of dollars in a futile attempt to “secure the borders.”
While Mexican migration has sharply declined in the last decade, the number of Border Patrol agents has ballooned to 20,000, a 300 percent increase from fifteen years ago. This enormous public expenditure has funneled migrants into the most barren parts of the Sonoran desert, resulting in the loss of many lives. At the same time, the implementation of programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities, supposedly meant to target dangerous criminals, has more often led to the deportation of non-criminals or those convicted of petty crimes. In fiscal year 2010, non-criminals and people convicted of immigration violations or traffic offenses made up nearly three out of every four removals. These programs have severely strained police-community relations across the country and, ironically, made communities less secure.
Despite the fact that comprehensive immigration reform is needed now more than ever, it will not happen before the 2012 elections. From the perspective of elected officials, advocating for any kind of immigration reform is politically risky and divisive. But as the extraordinary efforts of Tania and other DREAM activists have shown, they can be pushed to do so. California and Illinois, the first and fifth most populous states in the country, recently passed state-level DREAM Acts granting in-state tuition to undocumented students. While these are important victories, they must be seen as intermediate steps to more permanent solutions for all who are considered to be “out of status.”
Real reform will also require strong leadership from the top. President Obama came into office in 2008 promising comprehensive immigration reform but failed to make it a priority during his first term. Now, up for re-election, he is promising it again. If elected, it’s up to us to hold him to his word.