Immigration reform: Will the US go any further?

Changing illegal immigration is like trying to apply car brakes on a boat: It only drifts, trapped in the same current, writes a guest blogger.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
In this file photo, audience members listen to President Barack Obama speak about immigration reform at Chamizal National Memorial Park in El Paso, Texas.

• A version of this post ran on the Foreign Policy Association blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

After years of writing on the FPA immigration blog on topics usually concerned with Latino immigration in the United States, I sincerely believe that there are no current policies or legal frameworks that can handle the issue of illegal immigration in the US. With no real spokesperson for the millions of illegal immigrants in the US, specifically one that is actually a part of that group themselves, the needs of that group of people and fairness in handling the issue will never clearly come forward. Speaking on behalf of a community is not the same as truly coming from it and representing those people, leaving the discussions to take place outside of that community and never come to a realistic solution. A re-think of policy development and a non-partisan legal approach is needed, and that will not occur in the current political system. Until then, stopping illegal immigration is like trying to apply car brakes on a boat, it will not stop and your only choice is to choose to drift in a new direction, trapped in the same current.

In the past I have given legal advice to many illegal immigrants in my own country, and have personally seen issues that have never been addressed in immigration policies like those being discussed by Obama and Romney over the last few days. This past week, President Obama introduced a policy to allow children of illegal immigrants who live and have grown up in the US to be able to work and study in the only country they have ever really known. It is surprising that there was any real opposition to this move by Romney a few months ago as prohibiting their status allows for the creation of a population without a true identity. This was an issue with children in Europe who’s parents came from Turkey and had their children while working in Switzerland, but were not able to secure their children’s nationality in the only country they have ever known. They were not Swiss, but not Turkish either, and legally for an individual to have an identity under international law, they have to be a citizen of a state. A fine example of this confronted me one day when I had a client who was reported by his ex-girlfriend who wished to make a silly point to him and had him arrested for his immigration status. When I tried to speak to him in Spanish, he stopped me and answered me in English with the same accent I had, specifically from my city, and told me that his parents were refugees from Chile back in the 1970s and they did not know how to apply for their status and stayed ever since then. He never knew Chile, his Spanish was not likely good enough to work there, and he had a decent education and worked his whole life in my same country, but in the end he was deported. This case stood out for us as we never had someone who was almost exactly like us get kicked out of the country, but the laws were not evolved enough to understand that placing people who are truly part of your society and community into a position with no identity and no power has nothing but negative effects on the entire community.

Obama’s proposed change to the immigration law does achieve one small goal, it places focus on a community of young pseudo-Americans and acknowledges that they exist and that they are some part of American society. This acknowledgement of their group is the first step to tackling the challenges that groups without a full legal identity face in all communities. Three issues that concern me over encouraging a community without an identity in American society have become serious issues lately, and for the powerless in society it makes them into walking targets. The first issue is that this group might take to violent protests and further marginalize their cause and rights in the wider society. Protests often exist for many in Western countries for the sake of protest, and miss focusing on a real issue. This creates breathing space for productive protests to be labelled as issueless, thus muting their real message and chance for real change.

A major issue that needs to be addressed is that when there is questionable legal identity of a group, it leaves them to be subject to the undercurrent of illegal activities taking place in a society and across borders. This may place some women without the supports to avoid being trafficked into prostitution, a large issue that often targets women from poorer communities worldwide, removing their passports and money and creating modern day slaves for those without legal or physical power. While this has not become a major issue for young Latinos in the US, it is a serious problem in Europe and Latin America and could easily start sourcing the issues within the US itself.

The last major issue that is a great concern is bullying, specifically bullying that leads to workplace violence. The bullying debate often focuses on all kids in school, but over the last few years injuries and deaths have grown exponentially in North America from bullying in the workplace. For the powerless, the laws and anti-coercion measures are lacking and almost completely ineffective for those who do not have the power or money to fight a violent individual at work. Often being civil and going through the proper processes do not help and many are forced to live in an abusive relationship simply because they cannot find other work. For those young Latinos and children of illegal immigrants, they are simply walking targets for those who wish to take advantage of them and abuse them because they know they are financially weak and have no legal backing. For anyone facing violence in the workplace it is difficult to stop someone who chooses to physically abuse them while they try to simply live as any American does. Giving an individual power and strength to secure their own dignity is the most basic right for any individual in a democratic society. Obama’s new policy with support from Romney is a move in the right direction, now lets see if they can seriously address the underlying issues for the benefit of all communities living in the United States.

– Rich Basas is a Latin America blogger and Europe blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. Read the blogs here for Latin America and here for Europe.

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