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Immigrant Rights, Not Immigration Reform

Immigrant Rights, Not Immigration Reform

By David Howard

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One thing everyone agrees on regarding immigration is that the current system demands our attention. The critical question is, what kind of attention? Compassionate, inclusive and sustainable? Or just a quick and dirty political fix euphemistically called “comprehensive reform”?

Will we enact draconian remedies that turn 10 million hardworking human beings into instant felons, that erect the longest ghetto wall in history, that supply wage-and-benefit slashing labor to potentially unscrupulous employers? Or will we go beyond tinkering, bungling and punishing to forge a new immigrant rights vision?

The immigrant rights agenda is not the Congressional immigration reform agenda. Solutions to the challenges we face are unlikely to be drafted by legislators beholden to special interests and prone to pandering to the xenophobic right. Instead, the immigrant rights vision is being articulated by community organizations of working families.

These grassroots groups are calling for equal rights for all undocumented immigrants now in the US and a long-term partnership with Mexico to eventually allow the free flow of human beings, not just commodities, across our common border.

The immigrant rights movement is coalescing around four important ideas:

1) Undocumented immigrants from developing countries are, almost invariably, economic refugees. They are not “illegals” and they are not “aliens.” Rejecting the pejorative label is not merely a matter of cleaning up dehumanizing language. It also implies a genuine recognition of the plight of impoverished immigrant families.

Immigrants get swept up in the maelstrom of globalization. Some are pushed across the border because NAFTA permitted US taxpayer-subsidized corn to wipe out their livelihood, because drug lords in business to satisfy suburban US demand for psychotropic drugs terrorize their barrios, because pollution created by our country—the world leader in greenhouse gas emissions— makes their air unbreathable, because global warming from our Hummer culture of extravagant waste is turning their lettuce patches into deserts. Such families are no less worthy of refugee status than those fleeing despots, civil war or religious persecution.

2) Immigrant labor is an indispensable component of our economy. There is an immense number of entry-level jobs in agriculture and service industries that only immigrants on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder are ready, willing and able to take. Let’s be grateful.

3) Deportation or forced repatriation is wrong. Such measures should be limited exclusively to convicted and unrehabilitatable criminals. Repatriation disrupts and often destroys families. Currently, we have a large population of children who live under imminent threat of detention and deportation. Summarily returning them to their country of origin is a form of child abuse we cannot countenance. Not if we still want to honor the words we have inscribed on the Statue of Liberty; not if we still want to pride ourselves on the blood, sweat and tears of the immigrants, slaves, indentured servants and dispossessed natives who built our country. Just as the presumption of innocence is a right granted to criminal defendants, the presumption for undocumented immigrants should be that they merit the opportunity to contribute productively to our society.

4) We need to fund the immigrant rights vision. Unlike the Iraq war we squander our wealth on, an investment in a partnership with Mexico’s working families is honorable and worthwhile. When Europe decided to open its borders, it quickly overcame centuries of ethnocentrism and xenophobia. The richer northern nations invested in fortifying the developing economies of the south. We too can overcome.

Inspired by the wisdom of leaders like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, we must keep our eye on the prize of a world without borders, while respecting and expanding immigrant rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We must learn to view immigration not as a health hazard to control, contain or eradicate, but rather as a precious asset—the living, breathing humanity that brings out the best in us.

--David Howard is co-chair of Citizens for Peaceful Resolutions and a member of the May Day Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

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