America: The Land of the Free?

After what has been considered a historic moment in immigrant rights’ history, many in this movement are forced to deal with this question: “Do you support the Immigration Bill approved by the Senate?” I dare to say I am not the only one at odds with the long-awaited reform proposal. On the one hand, it opens the door to a pathway for legalization. On the other hand, its strong focus on security is a result of a misguided public debate on immigration.

There is an underclass of people currently living on the margins of society. Circumstance has pushed millions to immigrate to a country that has refused to recognize them as human beings with full rights while informally welcoming their labor and benefiting from it. A country that for decades has turned a blind eye to an undocumented status when it serves its best interest but when asked for equal treatment and fairness of a community that has been in the shadows, it has only responded by criminalizing it. It is a place where the most basic activities such as driving, attending school, and going to work have become inaccessible at best or a trigger for detention and expulsion in its harshest form.

Without reflection, in a near automatic fashion, opponents of immigration reform would respond, “It is a country of laws and they should be enforced” as a way to justify the treatment of its undocumented residents. Separating families and destroying lives that have been built for decades through deportation seem a fair punishment for such a “crime” of unlawful presence in this paradigm. If these laws we are so eager to uphold are criminalizing the most basic and essential aspects of the daily lives for over 11 million people, then isn’t it time to question whether they are working?

Under this bill, the DREAMers (undocumented youth) is the only group that sees an immediate path to permanent residency by meeting certain age and educational requirements. Perhaps the group that has received the most sympathy in this debate, as they never made a choice in living a life without legal status. Nevertheless, they along with their families have been facing the fear of loosing everything. It is such predicament that has led this vulnerable group in a position where they feel they can’t demand for fair treatment and to accept out of necessity, a flawed reform proposal known as Senate Bill 744.

Unfortunately, the parents and relatives of these DREAMers might never be able to adjust their status in a permanent manner due to the imposition of unattainable border metrics as a prerequisite in addition to strict requirements to maintain a temporary status. Family separation would continue with this Senate bill. Nonetheless, these same immigrants at risk of losing their temporary status at any moment, would still be required to pay income taxes and contribute to the American economy without receiving any public benefits like basic healthcare only available to permanent residents. This seems like one-sided deal and far from what the immigrant community has been fighting for decades.

View of the U.S. from Tijuana/San Ysidro Border
View of the U.S. from Tijuana/San Ysidro Border

On top of that of that, we have the southern border, the Berlin Wall of North America that will receive $40 billion for its militarization; A profitable enterprise for private prisons. Taxpayers will only see their public dollars go to waste in a fence that will witness an exacerbated humanitarian crisis that migrants currently face along the border region.

A security driven immigration proposal demonstrates that the public debate has been derailed by xenophobia rather than an understanding of the migration phenomenon. The criticism should also extent outside the U.S. It is irresponsible for emigrating countries such as Mexico to remain on the sidelines and watch the development of immigration policies that have distorted a human rights issue into a political negotiation gimmick. Migration is not only the concern of the host country as it should involve international dialogue, collaboration, and agreement. We do it for trade. Aren’t human beings as important?

It would be a shame that what immigration advocates refer to “comprehensive reform” would result in disappointment. Unfortunately, for an undocumented immigrant, such disappointment would be very costly as it might come in the form of a deportation. Can American do better? Only if the immigrant community demands it. The DREAMers and their movement have shown us it can be done.

Deal or No Deal: Will Immigration Reform Survive the Roadblocks of the Past?

When it comes to immigration, the political environment has a sense of déjà vu about it. It seems, we have been down this road before. A possible immigration reform deal that could have changed the legal status for many including my own was close at hand. 2001 seemed to be the year that would see legislation granting permanent residency to undocumented youth, or DREAMers as we know them today. During the months of April through August, bills in both the House and the Senate were introduced and Congress was set to reach a milestone in immigration reform since its last major overhaul enacted in 1986.

But one major event changed everything. September 11, 2001.

How Would a Patriot Act?

The long-term repercussions of such a tragic event were many and in a particular way, felt by the immigrant community. A post 9/11 America searched for safety and security reflected in the Patriot Act of 2001 which essentially blocked any immigration reform efforts under the grounds of terrorism. The young DREAMers would only see the doors closed to the possibility of being embraced as legal residents because we were now seen as a possible threat to national security.

Over the last decade, border enforcement received federal record budget allocations which reached  $18 million in 2012; it has been the guiding principle driving immigration policies.  Add to that the drastic changes in immigration laws that expand ground for inadmissibility and deportation, and what do we have as a result? The growth of a system of expulsion which is today the Department of Homeland Security.

We would like to think that the intention of these measures, increasing national security, is what America was really after. But in fact, it has only served to justify the forced exodus of immigrants that are far from being terrorists. President Obama, who to-date holds the record for deportation levels, continuously states that enforcement immigration agencies are solely focusing on high-priority, criminal and dangerous, immigrants. This could not be further from the truth.

I think of the hundreds of immigrants that daily are forced out to exit through the US-Mexico border as I did four years ago, and on the contrary, the vast majority of deportees are not much different from me. How many terrorist posing real threats to national security have been captured due to the militarization of the Mexico-U.S. border? Yet, it is still deemed as “not secure” by legislators who would like to make immigration reform conditional on achieving unclear levels of security.

It is now 2013 and we are here again. Will the outcome be different this time or are we going to hear more excuses preventing a deal on comprehensive immigration reform?

Published in La Prensa San Diego

Updated: 18-April-13

The State of Immigration Reform: A shift away from empty promises?

Featured Commentary in La Prensa San Diego

By Nancy Landa

President Obama is right about one thing. As he said in his State of the Union address, “…the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.” A sense of urgency was palpable in his request to Congress to send him an immigration bill in the next coming months as he committed to sign it into law immediately.

Without fail, border security was at the forefront; not only did President Obama embraced it as continued immigration policy, but also referenced it as a success of his administration with illegal crossings reaching their lowest levels in 40 years. It was probably safer for him to focus on such statistic rather than the other historic record he has set and for which he has received criticism by immigration advocates: the number of deportations under his first term, currently at 1.4 million.

It is promising to hear President Obama continues to stand firm on keeping a pathway to citizenship as part of the comprehensive immigration reform package. We are yet to see if Democrats will effectively persuade Republicans to warm-up to the idea of including a pathway to citizenship in an immigration plan, a potential contention point in upcoming rounds of negotiations. On the other hand, President Obama repeated much of the Republican rhetoric when he discussed the laundry list of requirements to “earn” this proposed pathway to citizenship: Get background checks, pay taxes and a significant penalty, as well as learn English.

As a former undocumented immigrant that faced the legal technicalities which prevented me to adjust my legal status in 20 years, I realized how complex and broken the immigration system really is. Often times I wonder if President Obama and the so-called bipartisan ‘Gang of Eight’ understand such complexity and if their proposals will actually reform a bureaucracy that is flawed in many ways. From visa processing wait times to detention and removal proceedings, the immigration system shows to lack the flexibility, humanity, and pragmatism that add to its dysfunction.

A two minute speech did not give enough room for elaboration aside from what we have already heard from President Obama on what he envisions in an immigration plan. The same can be said for the much anticipated official Republican response from Senator Marco Rubio. Although there are doubts if enough Republican support will be gathered to reach a deal on comprehensive immigration reform, there is no question they have been forced to be more receptive to work with Democrats toward a solution.

The devil is in the details, and particularly true as reform plans go through the deliberation process in both houses, which will give us a better indication if it will actually be “comprehensive”. But in contrast to four years ago, the immigrant community might actually see real change rather than empty promises. In the words of President Obama, “Let’s get it done. Let’s get it done.”

Nancy Landa is a deported honors graduate and former student President of California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Nancy resides in Tijuana since her deportation in 2009 and has shared her story to highlight the need for comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. You can follow Nancy on Facebook, Twitter or her blog at mundocitizen.com