U.S. needs reasonable immigration reform

This editorial appeared in The Miami Herald.

Ever since Congress failed to approve immigration reform last year, a pro-enforcement mind-set has taken hold at every level of government.

Along the border, a fence that symbolizes our failed immigration rules goes up rapidly, over the objections of adjacent communities. In cities and towns, immigrants are prey to random raids, punitive ordinances and policies that criminalize their status. What emerges from this patchwork of measures is the picture of a nation desperately in need of a sensible immigration plan, but clueless about how to achieve it.

The worst consequences are seen where grass-roots groups with vigilante-like fervor have waged a campaign to stampede state and municipal governments to promote immigration clampdowns.

This is the result of the debacle in Congress that frustrated participants on all sides of the immigration debate, creating a legislative vacuum eagerly filled by activists.

In some instances, such as the anti-immigrant ordinance in Hazelton, Pa., a federal judge last year told the city that it could not punish employers who hire illegal immigrants or landlords who rent to them. The judge reminded local leaders that ”persons who enter this country without legal authorization are not stripped immediately of all their rights.“

Few, it seems, listened. Since then, police departments around the country have rounded up hundreds of immigrants for misdemeanors and minor crimes, leading to racial profiling and the occasional arrest and deportation of legal residents.

At the same time, lawmakers have stuffed legislative hoppers with anti-immigrant proposals. In 2007, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 1,562 bills related to illegal immigration were introduced around the nation, and 240 were enacted in 46 states. Sheltering or transporting illegal immigrants is a felony in Oklahoma.

At the federal level, the administration has developed a split personality. The president was on the right track with a reform plan that addressed enforcement and a path to legalization for the 12 million undocumented immigrants already here.

But after it was shot down in Congress, mainly by members of his own party, Bush has allowed a search-and-seize mentality to prevail, with unfortunate effects.

Immigration cases suddenly dominate the calendar in the federal court system, to the detriment of enforcement in other areas. Of 16,298 federal criminal prosecutions recorded nationwide in March, immigration cases accounted for more than half. Drug offenses, the next-highest number, were far behind at 2,674. This escalation, involving offenses that generally fall under civil statutes, is of unprecedented magnitude.

Also, Bush has ordered federal contractors to verify the immigration status of their workers under the computerized system known as E-Verify. He thus converted this program from voluntary to mandatory with a stroke of the pen, without bothering to improve what many consider a spotty system. It falls far short of real immigration enforcement because it cannot detect applicants who use documents stolen from legal workers. A probable result is more identity theft by illegal immigrants.

Failure to respond to public concern over immigration would be irresponsible. Immigration laws must be strictly enforced. But the way that authorities are trying to compensate for the failure to devise a sane national immigration policy is wrong on several counts.

To begin with, it is selective enforcement. Large-scale immigration roundups are random and scattershot, often sweeping up the good and the bad. It often depends on where anti-immigrant sentiment is the strongest, not where criminal violations are prevalent.

In Mississippi, where strict laws took effect recently, less than 2 percent of the state's 2.9 million residents were born abroad and more than half of those are in the United States legally.

In many instances, the process is unfair. In May, 297 immigrants caught up in a raid on a meatpacking plant in Iowa pleaded guilty and were sentenced in four days, even though lawyers protested that they were denied meetings with the accused and that their claims under immigration law were brushed aside in a hasty rush to judgment.

The hit-and-miss effect is particularly evident at the local level. In some communities, police are encouraged to arrest illegal immigrants, regardless of whether they are familiar with immigration laws.

In Los Angeles, it is just the opposite: A federal court last week upheld a longstanding policy that prohibits police officers from initiating contact with people just to determine their immigration status.

Finally, the sudden intensification of anti-immigrant measures is ineffective. As a deterrent, it is unlikely to have any effect on workers who manage to keep their jobs, although it will drive more illegal immigrants to the underground economy to avoid deportation.

Needed: sound, reasonable, enforceable national immigration policy.

The Miami Herald