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Bad fences, good neighbors – U.S. immigration policy must support workers and families

Immigration reform is a complex issue that is too often treated simplistically and fueled by fear and prejudice — “fear of a brown nation,” as the title of an April 7 Our Lady of the Lake University symposium puts it. Even in pitching the proposed Senate bill — which is a model of rationality compared to the House’s small-minded version — Texas Senator John Cornyn has emphasized that its measures would encourage immigrants to learn English. It’s always amusing when so-called conservatives demonstrate how little faith they have in the free market. As long as English is the language of commerce, people will speak it because they have to. But if a language is dying or evolving — being de-selected by market forces — no amount of legislation will save it.

But back to the legislation at hand. Immigration is a human-rights issue: It’s wrong to criminalize people who are trying to make their lives better, who are pulled and pushed by economic forces out of their control. Erecting a 700-mile-long strip of barbed wire and metal between us and our neighbors would divide families and communities whose lives are lived on both sides of the border. This reality is driving protests throughout the country, including an April 10 National Day of Action in San Antonio, sponsored by San Antonio LCLAA AFL-CIO and a coaltion of community organizations.

The involvement of LCLAA AFL-CIO highlights that immigration is also a labor issue: Opportunistic politicians who whip up fear that immigrants are taking American jobs but refuse to back labor reforms are hypocrites. Proposals that have been floated (and unenforced in the past) to criminalize businesses that hire undocumented workers have been driven by racism rather than concern for laborers and their families, and have ignored the reality that the American economy needs those workers. Recent polls have found that the majority of citizens, including legal immigrants, believe that undocumented workers take jobs that legal residents do not want and support the economy through low-cost labor. Sometimes too low-cost. Former labor secretary Robert Reich has argued that the way to address immigration reform is to enforce labor laws for minimum wage, benefits, and related issues, which would level the playing field between legal and undocumented workers. But for that approach to work, American laborers must see undocumented workers as potential allies rather than foes in the struggle for better working conditions and a living wage.

Newspapers reported earlier this week that a solid majority of Americans favor immigration reform that doesn’t criminalize undocumented workers and that provides paths to jobs and ultimately citizenship. But just as importantly, recent surveys by the Manhattan Institute, the National Immigration Forum, and New America Media, report that when asked whether it would just be easier to remain illegal or whether they would take advantage of a new law allowing them to legalize their status, 98 percent of undocumented immigrants said they’d go legal.

More detailed questions in the survey reveal that these workers already are as American as apple pie: While more than 90 percent said they would be willing to provide accurate personal information, go through a criminal-background check, and pay a $1,000 fine to legalize their status, only 70 percent were interested in paying back taxes. If that last number doesn’t convince the House Republicans to extend these folks a path to citizenship, I don’t know what will.

If you want to participate in the April 7 OLLU symposium, visit ollusa.edu or call 434-6711. For more info on the National Day of Action march, which begins at 5 p.m. April 10 at Milam Park and continues to the Federal Building on Durango, call 842-9339. Students can call Claudia Sanchez, 355-4050.


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