COLUMN: Arizona immigration law should force Congress to act

Thursday, May 6, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

In the long run, though it may be at least a decade from now, it will be good that the Arizona state legislature adopted, and the governor signed on April 23, the new immigration law making it a crime to be in that state without being a legal immigrant. It will be even better that large protests took place around the United States over this past weekend.

Supporters of the law argue the state had to act because the federal government had failed to enforce existing immigration laws with devastating social and criminal consequence in Arizona. Opponents said the law would lead to racial profiling and spread fear in immigrant communities.

My first reaction was similar to those protesters shocked at the Arizona law who call for “social justice.” Over the course of last week, however, my thinking kept returning to the question “what else will cause this issue to be addressed?” If Arizona had not said “enough,” Congress and the president might not ever deal with the continual flow of illegal immigrants and the ensuing human tragedies.

Many states have passed symbolic resolutions opposing the recent federal health care reform, last year’s federal stimulus and the No Child Left Behind Act, but they have not taken attention-grabbing official action that may just force national policymakers to step up and address immigration problems.

Immigration reform is long overdue.  One can argue that it is five, 10 or 20 years overdue but it is clear that the national government has not controlled immigration through our southern border, leaving local and state governments to struggle with problems above their constitutional pay grade.

Immigration policy is highly controversial, combining elements of respect for law, community impacts, human rights, family unification and economic repercussions for the agricultural, hospitality and childcare industries. Undoubtedly, food prices would quickly increase if illegal workers were no longer hired. Add to that mix deep regional differences in familiarity and political concern, and the result is a national political stalemate for about two decades.

Part of American political culture is that the U.S. is a land of immigrants where all people can achieve their dreams and live happily ever after. Except for Native Americans, all of us are from immigrant families. The U.S. cannot allow all those who wish to become permanent residents to do so. Our economic prosperity, political freedom and quality of life make us an attractive place to live. Immigration, especially illegal immigration, complicates U.S. security efforts.

The current immigration debate is fueled by illegal immigration, mostly from Mexico. It is estimated there are about 10 to 12 (some say 20) million illegal immigrants in U.S., with 500,000 to 1 million increase each year.

While the “illegal immigration problem” is more intense in the southwest and in major cities, even communities in other states have faced poor and unsafe housing conditions, social service and health problems and economic consequences due to illegal immigration.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 made it illegal to hire or recruit illegal immigrants. Employers in agriculture and construction industries have the incentive to hire undocumented workers at the expense of the other potential workers, local communities and the exploited workers themselves— although they are undoubtedly better off than in their native communities. This 1986 Act granted amnesty to illegal immigrants and temporary resident status if they had lived here for four years.

In 2005, the U.S. passed a bill stressing border protection and immigration, and a year later the U.S. Senate passed a more “comprehensive” bill that included a path for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship, but neither bill became law because the difference could not be reconciled in conference committee. They need to try harder.

There are now a variety of proposals; one receiving recent attention is “comprehensive reform” proposed by Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and another by Sens. John McCain and John Kyl, Republican Senators from Arizona, who have a more Arizona-focused proposal. But they will help re-start Congressional deliberations.

It would seem that reasonable members of Congress could agree that the U.S-Mexican border needs to be secured, that employers who hire illegal workers need to be punished and that wages in Mexico need to be increased. Additionally, U.S. citizenship laws should be changed so that U.S. born children of non-citizens are not U.S. citizens. It is more difficult to decide how illegal immigrants now living in the U.S. should be dealt with, but there is no value in putting off that decision.

The American public should be concerned with civil rights abuses in Arizona just as we should be shocked at the number of humans who have drowned trying to swim the “All-American Canal” to freedom and at the substandard conditions in which most undocumented workers live and work. This is a continuing crisis that won’t be solved by moral outrage. We should not boycott Arizona, we should encourage and demand that Congress take action.

David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU. This article is presented courtesy of The Missouri Record, which carries Webber’s column each Tuesday.

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Ellis Smith May 7, 2010 | 6:52 a.m.

The title of this article should read "Arizona immigration law should SHAME Congress into acting."

Well, maybe not; is today's Congress even capable of experiencing shame, on any matter?

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