Comprehensive Immigration Reform: We Need Policy that Reflects Human Needs

Since the 2012 elections both Democrats and Republicans have paid at least lip service in favor of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). Proponents of comprehensive immigration reform argue for immigration laws that are not solely directed at deportations and border enforcement, but which also provide for legal status, a pathway to citizenship, unification of families, and that serve to strengthen our economy. The inclusion of the word “comprehensive” when advocating for immigration reform implies a desire for policy that puts the primary focus on human needs and not criminalization.

Unfortunately, even as immigration reform has at last received serious discussion through Senate Bill 744 advanced by the Senate Judiciary Committee, efforts continue to use immigration policy as a means to increase possibilities for detention and deportation without proof of criminal behavior. One such effort is amendment #43 backed by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), which would deny possibility for legal status to individuals whose names appear in a database of purported gang members, even when the individual has no criminal history. If passed, this amendment would prevent individuals from “legalizing their status because of accusations, rather than convictions” as noted in a May 14th editorial by the Los Angeles Times. In this respect, amendment #43 should be of concern to all citizens because it sanctifies punitive action without requiring proof of criminal activity or a conviction achieved through the transparency and due process that should always be afforded by our legal system.

While our policymakers argue the details of immigration reform, a clear winner of our “broken” immigration system is the private prison industry which profits from increased immigrant incarceration. According to a September, 2012 report published by Grassroots Leadership, “federal dollars behind immigrant incarceration come at a significant cost to the taxpayer, climbing in 2011 to an estimated $1.02 billion annually.” Readers seeking more information on the relationship between immigration policy and private prison industry profits, with specific reference to Texas and Austin, should read the report OPERATION STREAMLINE: COSTS AND CONSEQUENCES (Alistair Graham Robertson, et. al. Grassroots Leadership, September, 2012).

Over the past 5 years, our country has deported 2 million people. The current state of immigration is “net zero” meaning that as many people are returning to their country of origin as are entering the United States. Despite our net zero status, the number of deaths among immigrants crossing our southern border has risen dramatically. This increase is the result of two factors: 1) increased deportations which have resulted in larger numbers of immigrants motivated to return to the U.S. to reunify with their children, many of whom are U.S. citizens, and 2) the “prevention through deterrence” policy which forces border crossings to occur in “more hostile terrain”. To summarize, our immigration policy has increased deaths by raising the incentive to make a dangerous border crossing and by making sure the crossing is, in fact, more dangerous. More information on border deaths as related to immigration policy is provided by “Crossing the line at the border: Dying to get back” (PBS, Need to Know, May 17, 2013).

No doubt drafting a comprehensive immigration reform bill that can be passed in our divided House and Senate is no easy task, but surely our nation can do better than the existing policy which has raised border deaths and wasted public funds on private prison industry profits. More information on Senate Bill 744 can be found at the Reform Immigration for America web site here. If you wish to express an opinion on proposed legislation, you can find your House representative’s contact information here and your Senator’s information here.

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