Even opposition to the Vietnam War didn’t get this many people out in the streets of Los Angeles. Last Saturday, the turnout to protest an immigration reform bill the House recently passed was more than 500,000. Thousands across the country have protested in Arizona, Texas, Washington and Detroit. The bill – more a knee-jerk response to fears of an “invasion” of immigrants than sound public policy – would make illegal entry into the United States a felony and criminalize humanitarian aid to undocumented migrants.
It’s no secret that U.S. immigration policy is broken. Hundreds of thousands of workers enter the country illegally each year, and hundreds die trying to do so. Laws preventing employers from hiring undocumented workers exist but go largely unenforced. Border patrol officers apprehend only a fraction of those trying to enter, and after processing, they are dropped back off on the other side of the border – often left with no money and no other choice but to try again.
The House’s response to immigration was to pass a package of reforms that would only worsen the situation. The 700-mile-long wall proposed would span one-third of the U.S.-Mexican border, forcing migrants into even more dangerous sections of the desert. The most inflammatory provision would make aiding undocumented workers a felony. Criminalizing humanitarian aid would restrict individuals’ rights to help those in need and could put doctors, clergy and citizens acting in good conscience at risk of jail time.
The answer to illegal immigration cannot be found in the fear and paranoia that characterizes the response of those who support the bill. Walling off the border or incarcerating those who enter will not deter migrants trying to get to the jobs they need to feed their families.
Bills circulating in the Senate provide more hope, but deep divisions between and within the parties could thwart reforms. A bill passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee seems the most promising; it would establish a guest worker program and allow immigrants pathways to citizenship. It would also find legal, but hardly automatic, means for those without legal status to obtain permanent residency. To ensure the rights of the more than 11 million residents living in fear and without the same protections afforded the rest of the country, any plan must include a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship, even for those without legal status who are already living in the country.
No immigrant thinks smuggling himself into the country would be the adventure of a lifetime. No immigrant dreams of risking her life walking three days through a barren desert. But without legal ways of entering the country, there remains little option. Immigration reform is needed, but it will only succeed if it provides workers with rights and fair wages, rather than trying to further marginalize immigrants and those who help them. But to stop at guest worker programs only perpetuates a secondary class of residents with fewer rights than the rest of the nation. It’s no secret that this has long been a nation of immigrants – who enter both legally and illegally. America must shake its fear of its neighbors and realize that immigration is not its weakness, but its strength.