In 2000, we had Elián. The Aughts’ Great Immigration Debate—played out in the media, on the political stump, and around kitchen tables—began with the six-year-old Cuban boy’s arrival in Florida and is ending with 64-year-old pundit Lou Dobbs’s departure from CNN. The last 10 years have further polarized opinion on the merits and demerits of the 12 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States and the thousands more who attempt to join them each year.
The politicians stalled legislation, pointed fingers, and then made campaign ads in Spanish. Meanwhile, citizens and immigrants made ad hoc attempts at immigration reform. Border state ‘militias’ hunted migrants in the desert, law enforcement officials took detention matters into their own hands, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided workplaces and put children behind razor wire. Elsewhere, states offered drivers licenses to the undocumented, labor organizers formed unions of day laborers, California prohibited officials from requiring landlords to disclose information regarding tenants’ immigration or citizenship status, and in May of 2006, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demonstrate “A Day Without an Immigrant.”
After 10 years, those who celebrate the vigilante militias, those who offer sanctuary to immigrants pursued by ICE, and those politicians who decry the state of border security while employing undocumented gardeners all agree the current US immigration system is broken. And of course, no one can agree how to fix it.
By the numbers
Immigrants come from every country in the world, but much of the debate’s focus has been on the admissibility of Hispanic immigrants—mainly those from Mexico. This party reflects the factual demographics of immigration: In 2007, the Pew Research Center reported that more than 38 million people—or 12.6 percent of the total US population—were foreign-born. Nearly 45 percent of those were born in Latin America, and close to 13 million people came from Mexico alone. The second-largest nation-of-origin group is Filipinos, who account for five percent of immigrants.
In many minds, immigration = Mexicans. And in many minds Mexicans = illegal, again partly based on the demographic facts. According to the Pew Hispanic Center’s 2008 “Fact Sheet” on Mexican Immigrants in the United States, “more than half (55 percent) of the Mexican immigrants in this country are unauthorized. Overall, Mexicans comprise about six in 10 of the estimated 11.9 million unauthorized immigrants in the US.”
It is particularly this demographic group that is targeted by those who support reduced immigration. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) points to undocumented immigrants’ limited job skills and low English proficiency as threatening the American taxpayer and the American way of life. FAIR’s “Immigration 101” primer calls immigrants “inefficient” because “poor English skills among foreign-born residents cost more than $175 billion a year in lost productivity, wages, tax revenues and unemployment compensation.” According to FAIR, taxpayers fund $30 billion annually of immigrants’ children’s education (no distinction is made between the children of undocumented immigrants who are themselves undocumented and those who are US citizens by birth), and more than $20 billion for immigrant healthcare through Medicare and Medicaid.
FAIR recommends limiting all immigration from all countries to 550,000 people per year. According to the Office of Immigration Statistics, 188,015 people from Mexico alone obtained permanent legal status in 2008. That number does not include immigrants on temporary visas, guest workers, or those who entered the country unauthorized.
The dismal science
Every side of the immigration debate has used economics to defend its position. Employers lobby for temporary worker programs that allow them to fix low wages; unions advocate for amnesty for the current undocumented to stop employer abuses; nativists say immigrants are stealing American jobs. But while the argument often focuses on immigration’s impact on the economy, it less often focuses on the economy’s impact on immigration.
The perceived spike in Hispanic immigrants since 2000 has been a direct result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which opened the border to the flow of goods and capital and, consequently, people.
A 2006 Carnegie Foundation report on NAFTA’s effects found that since the treaty’s passage in 1995, Mexican wages along the border were driven down by 25 percent. A 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service admitted, “NAFTA itself has not been enough to lower income disparities within Mexico, or between Mexico and the United States or Canada.” Ten years after NAFTA, 65 percent of Mexicans were still living in “moderate” or “extreme poverty” (defined by the World Bank as living on less than $2 per day). Economists have cited Mexico’s poverty rate as well as its income differential with the US as the primary impetuses for emigration.
Because economic hardships in their home countries may have driven immigrants to the US, some researchers and economists have said the recession here will have a hand in sending them home. While a July study from the Pew Research Center noted the number of Mexican-born US residents had dropped by about 100,000 since 2008, the “analysis finds no support for that hypothesis in government data from the United States or Mexico.” And a September Pew survey found that one third of Mexicans said they would immigrate to the US if they could, half of those would do so without documents. A dwindling US economy is still more appealing than the Mexican one.
Culture and economics have bolstered the major theme of the immigration debate: law and order. Since 2001, the stated goal of immigration enforcement under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been protecting American citizens’ safety. The “2006-2010 National Strategic Plan” claims “the daily attempts to cross the border by thousands of illegal aliens from countries around the globe continue to present a threat to US national security.” And while the plan recognizes “the majority of these aliens as ‘economic migrants,’” it insists “an ever-present threat exists from the potential for terrorists to…use these masses of illegal aliens as ‘cover’ for a successful cross-border penetration.”
By classifying undocumented immigrants as threats to national security, the Customs and Border Protection was able to expand its budget from $6 billion in 2004 to $10.1 billion in 2009, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The five-year Security Border Initiative (SBI) has increased the number of Border Patrol agents from 18,000 to 20,000. In 2006, Congress passed and President Bush signed H.R. 6061, which authorized and partially funded the construction of 700 miles of wall along the US-Mexico border. Despite ramped up border security, a February report from the Migration Policy Institute claims that 97 percent of unauthorized migrants eventually succeed in entering the US.
Rather than preventing migration, heightened border security has threatened the physical safety of migrants attempting to cross. An October 1 ACLU report calls deaths at the US-Mexico border a “humanitarian crisis.” According to data from DHS, estimated deaths of those trying to cross the border total 3,366 since 2000 (including estimates for 2009). In contrast, the ACLU report gives figures from the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Relations, which put the total closer to 4,600 (not including 2009). The Mexican numbers show an all-time high of deaths in 2007, with 827. American figures for that year record only 329 deaths. The report notes, however, that the Border Patrol statistics often do not match local medical examiners’ statistics regarding the number of migrant bodies. The ACLU concludes that even if taking a middle ground between the US and Mexican data sets, “it is safe to conclude that “at least one migrant dies every single day.”
Guilty until proven guilty
But migration continues, and immigration enforcement then turns to apprehension and deportation of those successful border crossers. Under President Bush, ICE’s main strategy was highly public workplace raids that rounded up hundreds of undocumented immigrants in one go. Before 2006, most of those caught entering the country or working without documents were charged with civil immigration infractions. But ICE’s federal funding stipulates that the agency target and deport immigrant criminals, and they had to get their numbers up somehow.
A March, 2008, report from Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse noted that immigration cases accounted for 57 percent of all federal criminal cases nationwide that month. The report also found that 99 percent of people referred to federal prosecutors for immigration offenses were charged. The cases represented an attempt to make criminals out of the immigrants ICE could catch—those swept up in workplace raids—rather than catch actual immigrant criminals.
One of the most high profile cases occurred in May, 2008. In what was then the largest single-site immigration raid in US history, ICE detained 389 workers, mainly Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants, from a Postville, Iowa, meatpacking plant. Federal prosecutors went on to press criminal charges related to identity theft against 306 of them. Over the course of four days of what have been characterized as “show trials” by one government translator who leaked information to The New York Times, 270 immigrants pleaded guilty to felony charges and were sentenced.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in May that identity-theft law does not apply to immigrants who use false Social Security numbers. The Association of American Immigration Lawyers has asked the Justice Department to dismiss the Postville detainees’ guilty pleas.
If we can
The Obama presidential campaign may have adopted the immigrant rights marchers’ “Sí se puede!” slogan, but the president has yet to deliver on immigration reform. President Bush’s 2007 attempt at “comprehensive immigration reform” came at the heady start of the presidential primary campaign. But once the legislation failed in the Senate, the presidential candidates did their best to avoid discussing immigration reform—it didn’t come up once in any of the three televised debates between Obama and John McCain.
Both candidates took fairly moderate stances on immigration. McCain had supported the Senate’s reform bill, but in the campaign, he rejected his previous position in order to line up with the Republican National Committee’s platform and woo hard-line anti-immigrationists. Obama, too, adopted his party’s revised platform that called for enforcing law and order over offering amnesty.
Still, Obama pledged to make immigration reform a priority. He received 67 percent of the Latino vote—up 14 percentage points for the Democrats from 2004. Latino voter turnout also increased by 25 percent in the 2008 election.
Since taking office, Obama has repeatedly stated that he hasn’t forgotten about immigration reform, though his administration’s policies have changed little from the Bush years. The administration expanded E-Verify, a document check program that has been widely criticized for its error rate and potential for discrimination. Border enforcement continues to be a priority for the new DHS head and former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. This month, Obama appointed Stephanie Rose, the federal prosecutor responsible for arranging the felony pleas of the Postville detainees, US Attorney in Iowa.
If immigration reform comes up early next year, as the administration has promised it will, the themes of the debate will not have changed. At issue will be a path to citizenship for the current 12 million undocumented residents, temporary worker programs, border security, and Americanness. Whichever way the debate goes, wrapped as it is in the great constants of death and taxes, continued migration is certain.
SIMONE LANDON B’10.5 sin fronteras.