Immigration Chaos: Rule of Law versus Rule by Fear

By Michelle Chen Oct 17, 2009

The White House’s vows to reform immigration enforcement have met a mixture of tepid praise and cynical frustration from advocates. The Center for American Progress says that despite “good intentions,” the administration’s promises to make the system more rational and humane have fallen flat. And yet the White House can only do so much to address the dysfunctionality of the immigration system without political will in Congress. Since Obama took office, little has changed in immigration enforcement on the ground. Promises to improve detention conditions have been tempered by reports of deaths in custody and the abandonment of due process. In May, one year after the infamous raid on the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa under Bush, ICE-initiated prosecutions were significantly higher under Obama, according to Syracuse University researchers. Yet recent reform initiatives, CAP says, do at least show that someone at the White House is finally giving these issues serious thought. Whether any of those initiatives move off the page and into our communities, however, depends on whether Congress recognizes that the most troubled aspects of immigration enforcement are governed not by laws but by men. Men like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose reign of terror in Arizona exemplifies what happens when the feds deputize local authorities and leave county police on auto-pilot. CAP argues, "without comprehensive immigration reform legislation from Congress, the system will continue to be a patchwork of outdated rules that are inefficient and open to abuse by maverick sheriffs, employers, bureaucrats, and almost anyone else who is forced to work within the broken system." Arpaio has complained that Washington’s reform efforts were unfairly constraining his authority to round up and brutalize immigrants. But ICE’s continuation of the draconian 287(g) program (currently getting an incremental makeover) for local immigration enforcement suggests that Arpaio’s grumbling, like most of his regime, is mainly for show. The National Day Laborer Organizing Network remarked on Friday that it is frustrating, though hardly shocking, that many local jurisdictions are still cozy with ICE:

We were stunned to see Joe Arpaio is on the list of partner agencies. The country needs federal immigration reform, not a handful of agreements with demagogue sheriffs in the South with a track record of scapegoating immigrants. Today’s announcement takes us in the exact opposite direction we need to be heading to achieve comprehensive immigration reform…. In the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how many 287g agreements are signed, or what modifications the programs goes through if the suffering of families continues in our communities. To us, nothing has changed. We know first hand what it is like when local sheriff deputies or police officers are given the authority—whether in jail or in the streets—to enforce immigration laws: it is a recipe for racial profiling.

The CAP report calls out lawmakers for malign neglect: “Despite the administration’s best intentions, only comprehensive immigration reforms can provide DHS with the policy framework it needs for rational, effective enforcement.” An August report on immigration trends from the Congressional Research Service puts undocumented immigrants in historical context:

Although most policy makers have assumed that tighter border enforcement would reduce unauthorized migration, some researchers observe that the strengthening of the immigration enforcement provisions, most notably by the enactment of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), may have inadvertently increased the population of unauthorized resident aliens. This perspective argues that IIRIRA’s increased penalties for illegal entry, coupled with increased resources for border enforcement particularly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, stymied what had been a rather fluid movement of migratory workers along the southern border; this in turn raised the stakes in crossing the border illegally and created an incentive for those who succeed in entering the United States to stay.

While many social and economic factors drive immigration, the chaos in the system ties directly back to previous policy decisions, and Washington’s inaction has by default expanded the dilemma it supposedly wants to contain. As Congress turns away from rule of law in immigration policy, it turns over the system, and the fate of the people trapped in it, to those who rule by fear. Image: Day laborers protest in California (miss x / LA Indymedia)