One reason I am proud to be a resident of New Haven is that this city is leading the nation in embracing its immigrant population, documented and undocumented. The police department has adopted a policy that prohibits them from asking crime victims about their immigration status. City Hall sponsored workshops this year to help undocumented immigrants file their taxes. This summer, New Haven will become the first city in America to issue municipal identification cards to residents regardless of immigration status. The cards will help undocumented workers apply for bank accounts and provide identification to the police. On May 1 of last year, I joined thousands of other demonstrators marching in support of immigrant rights, and I will do so again this coming May 1 (before shouting along with T.I.’s “What You Know” at Spring Fling).
New Haven was just one of hundreds of cities that saw huge demonstrations last spring, but it is leading the way in advancing a fair and pragmatic policy toward its immigrants. Meanwhile, the national debate on immigration remains unresolved. The outcome of this discussion will say a lot about the status of the dream of America as a free and inclusive democracy, a nation of immigrants. A year later, where do we stand?
Though the demonstrations contained a powerful affirmative message, they were staged in reaction to one ominous development: the passage by the U.S. House of Representatives of James Sensenbrenner’s proposal to further criminalize, imprison and ultimately deport undocumented immigrants. Though the bill never passed the Senate, it nonetheless showed that the right-wing fantasy of expelling millions of immigrants remains a concrete possibility.
Not only would mass deportation amount to an act of ethnic cleansing, it is also physically and financially impossible. There are 12 million undocumented or otherwise “illegal” noncitizens living in the United States. Their presence and their importance to our society and economy are facts. Their status as an excluded and exploited minority is also fact, one that we can choose to change or make permanent.
Other more feasible methods of cracking down on immigrants have of course cropped up, especially at the local level, providing a dark counterpoint to New Haven’s policies. According to the Migration Policy Institute at NYU, municipalities passed 34 laws last year restricting immigrants’ access to work and social services. Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has conducted a series of raids, abducting whole factories worth of undocumented workers and imprisoning or deporting them.
The ostensible alternative to the far-right position is a temporary or “guest” worker program, some form of which is favored by President Bush and even many liberals in Congress. Under this policy, workers would come to the United States legally to work a specific job. In some versions, the workers would have to return to their country of origin when their visa expires. In both Bush’s model and the McCain-Kennedy bill in the Senate, immigrants would have a chance to apply for full citizenship while they are in the United States.
But the guest-worker “solution” is also troubling. Legal temporary workers already exist in the current framework, and their situation is no less vulnerable than that of undocumented workers. Temporary workers often pay massive fees to come to this country in the first place, often going into debt. It is not uncommon for workers to arrive in the U.S. only to have their passports seized. Many work in poor conditions for minimal pay. An expanded temporary-worker program would freeze this situation of inequality and exclusion, making a state-sanctioned underclass a permanent feature of our society.
There is only one solution that both recognizes the reality of the undocumented population and lives up to the ideal of true democracy, and that is legalization, or citizenship for undocumented workers. This policy would address economic worries about immigrants’ dragging down wages and “taking American jobs.” It is not the presence of immigrants that sinks wages and threatens jobs, but a citizenship framework that tolerates a dual system of institutionalized inequality. Other measures, compatible with welcoming immigrants, such as a strengthened union movement, robust labor laws and fairer international trade can address the pressure on American workers.
Luckily, America’s moral and democratic obligation to accept newcomers coincides with a pragmatic assessment of the situation. The designation of “illegal” is but a statutory category that neither recognizes the reality of the situation nor lives up to the ideals of the Constitution. The United States, following New Haven’s example, ought to allow them the rights, benefits and dignity of citizenship.
Jared Malsin is a senior in Berkeley College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.