Immigration reform is more than rhetoric

Sunday March 24, 2013

With Republicans chastened by their terrible showing among Hispanic voters last November 6, this is supposed to be the year that comprehensive immigration reform finally emerges from Washington. It may, but the stagnation of gun law reform offers a reminder of how ideology and the status quo can combine to sidetrack the most noble and needed of efforts. Humanity -- which is what both immigration and gun reform are centered around -- can be squashed by political cynicism.

In last Sunday’s comprehensive series of stories on immigration, Berkshire Eagle staffer Josh Stilts put a human face on the issue, while detailing the complexities that place roadblocks to reform from Washington D.C. to the rural communities of Berkshire County. The story of Chantal Leven, as chronicled by Mr. Stilts, defies all of the simplistic, mean-spirited stereotypes about immigrants and provides insight into what they unfairly endure.

Ms. Leven left Montreal after high school to work at the Kripalu Yoga Center in Stockbridge and met her future husband here, but upon trying to return to the U.S. after a trip back to Canada -- our friendly neighbor to the north -- she was denied reentry and submitted to a humiliating airport strip search. She made it back to the U.S. and is now a citizen but was subjected to 25 years of fear not because she wanted to rip off the U.S. but because she wanted to be a working part of it.

For comprehensive reform to take place that frees people like Chantal Leven from years in limbo, certain realities have to be accepted and myths abandoned. It is impossible to deport an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, and it is encouraging that even Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky tea partier, has figured this out. It is cruel to punish the children of illegal immigrants by depriving them of academic aid or a path to citizenship. It is pointless to declare that there can be no reform until the border with Mexico is sealed when it essentially has been. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, illegal border crossings are now at net zero thanks to increased security efforts mandated by President Obama. Deportations have increased dramatically under the Obama administration, an enforcement measure of extremely dubious value as it fractures families and punishes the innocent.

A better balance between realism and punishment will open a path toward the "fair and just immigration reform" outlined last Sunday by Hilary Greene, the executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center. This includes protecting not dividing families, assuring that the rights of immigrants are observed, and the creation of a realistic route to permanent residency and citizenship. In the latter case, this means no criminal or financial penalties, as punishment only keeps illegal immigrants in the shadows, to not only their detriment but to the detriment of an American society that would benefit from their productivity and tax dollars.

The U.S. senators chosen to craft immigration reform legislation appear to have abandoned the concept of a government-issued ID card for workers, which unfortunately signals a greater reliance on E-Verify, an Internet system that supposedly enables employers to check the legal status of workers. E-Verify, billed as fast, free and easy to use, is also prone to fraud, errors and hackers. Absent comprehensive immigration reform, E-Verify could strip the agricultural industry of the undocumented workers it currently relies upon -- or more accurately exploits. Georgia and Alabama found this out the hard way last year when enforcement of tough immigration laws lacking a path to citizenship chased farm workers away, resulting in crops left to wither in the sun.

It will take more than meeting with Hispanic groups they previously ignored and pandering with a few words of Spanish for Republicans to win their votes. They will have to start being part of the solution when it comes to the knotty problem of illegal immigration. All of America will win if and when that happens.


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