Make immigration a federal debate
Understatement of the year: illegal immigration is a major issue in modern American society. More than most countries, the United States’ history is strongly shaped and characterized by a significant immigrant narrative. Predictably, public debates on immigration and what constitutes American-ness have existed for the entire span of American history.
In that sense, the current immigration debate is strikingly familiar. The demographics and countries of origin may be different from that of a hundred years prior, but as a country we are still dealing with the challenge of constructing legislation that inherently targets a specific group of people (immigrants) without being simultaneously discriminatory and exclusionary. With immigration, there is no single right-to-left spectrum of viewpoints à la the death penalty or gun control, but rather a wildly disorganized public discourse that goes in several directions. A light sample of immigration issues: border control, amnesty, tax burden, civil rights, human rights, family rights and the question of whether children should suffer for the decisions of their parents. I don’t have the time to cover all of those issues.
My argument so far: the subject of immigration is too complicated and wide-ranging to confront with an 800-word column. Here’s something that I do have the space to argue: the federal government needs to take a leadership role in tackling the present problems with immigration, specifically illegal immigration. Right now in the United States we have 50 states and thus 50 different sets of legislation that instruct authorities in how to deal with, regulate—and in some situations—effectively persecute illegal immigrants.
One cannot credibly discuss illegal immigration in 2011 without first discussing Alabama and Arizona. These two states are worth noting because their potential/ existing laws exceed the reasonable goal of immigration legislation—to protect the nation from the numerous societal and economic problems that can arise from unrestricted immigration—and instead provide an impetus for the rights of human beings to be violated.
It should be noted that Arizona’s 2009 “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act” (SB 1070) was quickly met with widespread criticism and numerous legal challenges to its constitutionality. But, the fact that the original legislation was even passed underscores the need for federal leadership on the issue. SB 1070 obligated law enforcement to demand an individual’s immigration status upon “reasonable suspicion” that someone could be an illegal alien. Due to the racial and demographic makeup of immigration, particularly in the American Southwest, any Latin American, theoretically, could have been demeaningly asked to present proof that they are just as American as anyone else. The bottom line is that no state legislature should have felt so empowered as to enact the law in the first place.
The recent Alabama law has similar provisions to SB 1070 regarding queries of someone’s immigration status and goes further. If an illegal immigrant enters into a contract, it is immediately nullified upon discovery of their status. They cannot perform transactions with any division of the state (the police don’t have to “protect and serve” them). Perhaps the most insidious part of the law is that schools have to confirm the immigration status of incoming students, a provision that is explicitly affecting children who have little control over their legal status. When the law was challenged in federal court last Wednesday, all of the above provisions were upheld. Such an important decision should not have been left to the discretion of one single judge, but rather all three branches of government.
There is extensive precedent for the federal government to step in when the states are doing an inadequate job of legislation, as is the case with the present laws on illegal immigration. Since the advent of the United States, the age-old pattern of states’ rights steadily being superseded by federal authority has given us some great things, like the direct election of senators, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a solitary reason to like Andrew Jackson (He was not a good person, but check out the Nullification Crisis of 1832).
The present immigration crisis represents much more than a chance for me to relive my memories of AP US History from five years ago. As in 1863 or 1963, there are large groups of people within our country today who are subject to an entirely different set of laws than most. They are at the mercy of 50 different state governments, and the maelstrom of viewpoints and influences that dictate how those state governments act. The federal government needs to step up and authoritatively lay down the difference between discrimination and immigration regulation.
Given the shambolic state of our current federal government—in particular the executive and legislative branches—anyone waiting for speedy immigration reform is a tad naïve. Perhaps there are not enough Americans yet who feel that immigration is a major issue; that is somewhat understandable because it is far from the only significant political issue out there. But the individuals in our country who “fit the description” are in for a long, tortuous wait.