Immigration reform requires bold, creative thinking

(Article published Apr 24, 2008 in the South Bend Tribune)

Immigration reform requires bold, creative thinking


The advent of the presidential primary season has been the occasion for the question of immigration reform to recede, somewhat, from national prominence. Commentators noted how even during the later GOP debates the issue was only briefly discussed, if mentioned at all. In Indiana, attempts to pass immigration-related legislation have failed, collapsing as backers sought to distance themselves from embarrassing racially-charged comments made in support of Senate Bill 335.

Concerns over immigration-related matters may take a back seat during the remaining months before the November elections. But there does appear to be broad-based agreement on the need for reform that will compel legislative action.

Such reform must necessarily come from federal, as opposed to state or local level, legislation. Immigration involves federal policies regarding the treatment of undocumented workers, border security as well as consideration of the increasingly global and integrated nature of the economy. As such, attempts by state legislators to circumvent the unambiguously federal nature of immigration issues are misguided.

The subject of immigration is complex; it demands consideration of historical, economic, cultural and other factors in what must be a responsible, comprehensive policy change. To address immigration in a piecemeal fashion that deals with but one aspect — “enforcement” — while neglecting other facets is to oversimplify and, ultimately, exacerbate the situation.Certainly, it is both reasonable and responsible for the federal government to ensure the security of our national borders. It follows that, towards this end, an enforcement mechanism be in place. But in order to realize the best chance of effectively securing our borders, any enforcement mechanism must be constructed as part of broad reforms that acknowledge the realities of today’s world. “Enforcement only” attempts have failed; Border Patrol funding has grown exponentially in recent years while the undocumented immigrant population has continued to grow and public alarm has increased.

Reforms must recognize the importance of immigrants to the health and well-being of our domestic economy and should demonstrate an appreciation for the tacit acceptance of undocumented laborers that existed for many years. It is because of this unspoken but understood historical reality that there are now millions of undocumented individuals and families living and working inside the United States.

The relatively recent shift in attitudes towards the topic of immigration comes as a direct result of several factors beyond the control of immigrants themselves. Understandable public distress at the uncertainties and disruptions associated with a globalizing economy that is fundamentally transforming the labor market and fears linked to the perceived threat of terrorism are among the most salient changes in circumstances that have contributed to the public’s renewed focus on immigration issues.

Sadly, American history is fraught with examples of ugly, vicious treatment of immigrants who are cynically made into scapegoats for social problems. It is always convenient to dehumanize and blame an individual or group in a subordinate social position that hinders their ability to defend themselves. Perhaps most disturbingly, a limited minority continues to advance stances toward immigrants that can only be described as racist and xenophobic — attacks that are, to some degree, encouraged by a short-sighted enforcement-only legislative debate.

Developing comprehensive immigration reform will surely entail bold, creative thinking on the part of our elected officials. Worthwhile legislation will unavoidably include a procedure by which existing undocumented individuals and families are afforded a reasonable opportunity to either pursue U.S. citizenship or “guest worker” status.It is in everyone’s interest that the overwhelming majority of individuals and families who are now living and working as undocumented immigrants can feel safe, respected and valued for their contributions to our society. It is in no one’s interest that these same individuals and families should be afraid for their livelihoods or look upon both law enforcement officials and members of the general public with fear, mistrust or any general sense of antagonism.

As this area’s representative to federal government, U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly must rise to the challenge presented by the immigration issue. He must have the courage to see beyond the contemptuous actions of some politicians who are willing to fan the flames of public discontent for political gain and instead demonstrate his true commitment to all of the 2nd District’s working families. In particular, Donnelly must stand up for the thousands of immigrant soldiers and their families who depend upon “fast-track” paths to citizenship after serving full tours of duty while war widows face potential deportation.

Some rely upon a “divide and conquer” strategy that seeks to play segments of our community off of one another for private gain. Yet there is much more common ground in the everyday experiences and interests of all working people in the world today — regardless of national boundaries or citizenship status — than what divides them. This is an escapable fact of our globalizing world; we face a choice between cultivating a sense of universal humanitas (Latin for “humanity”) that celebrates our commonalities and continuing to foster preventable conflict that does so much harm to so many.

The people of the 2nd District should urge Donnelly and other elected leaders to validate the sacred trust we place in them by passing responsible, visionary comprehensive immigration reform.


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