Immigration Plan is Way Off the Mark

On November 6, 2013 Applied Research Center (ARC) was rebranded as Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation. The content on this page was published on the ARC website prior to the rebrand.
May 1, 2006


The two major components of his program are increased enforcement of immigration laws and a new low-wage "guest worker" program. History proves that neither of these approaches will bring us closer to a comprehensive fix.

Boiled down, the debate over immigration reform is about immigrant integration. Are we going to ease the transition of newcomers to the United States, or are we going to presume all foreigners are terrorists until proven otherwise? The Bush camp poses immigration almost exclusively as a matter of national security, particularly after 9/11. The president equates "comprehensive immigration reform" with tighter immigration enforcement. But he also yields to the Big Business lobby that seeks a cheap, disposable labor force and the creation of a new three-year visa for foreign workers. Therefore, "comprehensive immigration reform" also means facilitating the influx of immigrants who will be forced to labor in low-wage jobs with no security and few rights.

On enforcement, Bush's wants to significantly increase policing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Since he took office in 2000, he has approved a 30 percent rise in the number of border agents, from 9,500 to 12,500 today. This amounts to $139 million worth of upgrades and new technology and $70 million in physical barriers at the border. At the end of 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 4437 authorizing $2.2 billion for the construction of 698 miles of fence along the California and Arizona borders -- $3.2 million per mile.

Increased enforcement won't stop the tide of unauthorized migration. From 1986 to 2002, the border patrol budget increased tenfold (from $151 million to $1.6 billion) and the number of hours border agents spent patrolling increased eightfold. Yet, the number of undocumented immigrants from 1993 to 2004 doubled, from 4.5 million to 9.3 million.

To top off his costly border enforcement program, Bush also wants to stiffen the so-called employer sanctions, which make it illegal to hire undocumented immigrants. Bush would enhance an employer's access to various federal databases. So, not only would the DMV verify a person's immigration status (thanks to last year's REAL ID Act), every single employer in the country would be legally required to do so. This arrangement is ripe for racial profiling, discrimination and abuse against all American workers, but immigrants in particular. It's troubling when our nation's leaders seek to make the lives of the foreign-born as difficult as possible but attempt to hide it in the guise of reform.

The second major feature of the Bush plan, the guest worker or temporary worker program, like the Bracero program and the importation of H1-B professionals, strips away the rights of workers. Moreover, this program is plainly an attempt to smoke out undocumented immigrants, require them to work for big U.S. corporations and then mandate their deportation. Bush's euphemism of "matching willing foreign workers to willing American employers" diverts national attention away from historically high levels of unemployment in minority communities. And, as he reminds us every time he speaks of this proposal, "this is not an amnesty."

On the other side of the debate are immigrants who are clamoring for a genuine legalization program that integrates newcomers into civic life; in short, granting newcomers immediate access to green cards. It's the simplest, fairest and most humane way of integrating immigrants.

Critics claim that making green cards available to undocumented immigrants rewards those who have broken the law. But have we already forgotten that civil rights workers like Rosa Parks had to challenge Jim Crow laws in the South in the 1950s and 60s in order to bring about civil rights? What is U.S. immigration law but a modern-day extension of the same system that made African Americans second-class members of society?

Advocates call attention to the contributions that immigrants, both those with and without legal status, already make to our society. Immigrants pay millions of dollars in sales, property, income and payroll taxes. Government estimates show that immigrants will contribute $611 billion to Social Security over the next 75 years.

Immigrants are also the backbone of the U.S. manufacturing and service industries. Imagine a construction site, hospital, restaurant or field without immigrant labor. The time has come to recognize their tremendous contributions to the American way of life.

No matter how many walls we build, immigrants are not going to stop coming. People leave their own homes for political and economic reasons, and things aren't getting any better in the developing countries they leave. President Bush continues to turn a blind eye to the reality of globalization instead of creating a program that recognizes the role our economic and foreign policies play in the displacement of people around the world.

The current calls for harsher immigration policies constitutes a retreat into our nation's shameful, racist past. The president needs to wake up to the lessons of history. Integration is in our national interest and will bring about the most equitable solution to this complex American problem.

Angela Junck is immigrant defense director at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco and Christopher Punongbayan is advocacy director at Filipinos for Affirmative Action in Oakland, Calif. Both are Ford Foundation New Voices Fellows and members of the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition.