The State of Immigration Reform: Going Rogue and the Cost of Doing Nothing

By Michelle Chen Jan 27, 2010

On the eve of the State of the Union Address, protesters rallied in the nation’s capital to pressure the federal government to act on immigration reform. It was clear that immigrant advocacy groups fall into a long queue of communities profoundly disappointed with the Obama administration’s failures.

"We want to bring attention to the lack of movement on immigration reform," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland, one of the organizing groups. Citing President Obama’s promises to pursue immigration reform in the first year of his administration, he said: "We were very excited, because the great majority of the Latino community said: ‘Finally, we have a president who looks like us, and he’s going to fight for us.’ . . . "We want to let him know that if there’s no reforms, he’s not going to be reelected. The Latino community and the immigrant community are not going to believe him."

Immigration vies with unemployment and health care for room on Obama’s domestic policy plate. But the urgency of the immigration issue may, in some respects, be even more acute than the turmoil of the recession or the dysfunctional health care system. Because the cost of doing nothing is to allow human rights violations to continue unabated in a political vacuum. At NAM, Valeria Fernandez reports that federal inaction has spurred Arizona to step in and use local law enforcement to profile and detain immigrants:

A bill moving fast through the Arizona Senate would allow local police to arrest and incarcerate someone for “trespassing” into the territory of the state. “The federal government is not doing its job so we’re going to do it,” said Sen. Russell Pearce (R-Mesa), author of the bill, which is called the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhood Act…. The trespassing bill would make it a misdemeanor to be in the state illegally. A person arrested twice under the law would be charged with a felony. The Arizona bill includes a number of provisions, including one proscribing “sanctuary polices,” and restricting any government agency or city from limiting immigration enforcement.

Rev. Liana Rowe, with the Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix, cited the danger of Washington’s passivity:

“The feds have not done anything about immigration reform. They’ve allowed the status quo to remain,” she said. “And it really allows states to go rogue on these issues, to not have a systematic and sensible and human approach.”

A similar effort is underway in Indiana. Among other things, the proposed legislation raises penalties for driver license violations and requires the use of the controversial E-verify system for screening government workers and recipients of state unemployment benefits. Like the Arizona bill, it may criminalize groups tied to the immigrant community by targeting anyone who “harbors or shields from detection an illegal immigrant for commercial or private financial gain.” An editorial in the Evansville Courier & Press suggests that congressional inaction is giving state lawmakers a green light to crack down as they please:

Our own view is that clearly, it is a federal issue that begs for uniformity from state to state. However, in the absence of a federal immigration law, Indiana is justified in passing a law that discourages the intentional hiring of illegal immigrants.

There is no shortage of proactive reasons to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, including the need to address horrific health conditions in immigrant detention facilities and the potential economic boost of giving millions of immigrants legal status as workers. But a critical incentive for real federal action is the mess that currently operates in its place. The notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio made a prescient comment at a recent protest against his brutal raids and detention policies:

For his part, Arpaio said he wasn’t bothered by the protesters and that they should be directing their frustrations at Congress because it has the power to change America’s immigration laws. "They are zeroing in on the wrong guy," Arpaio said. "They ought to be zeroing in on the president."

He’s got a point. If Washington sits back and lets conservative state officials and police chiefs run the show, the rights and welfare of millions of immigrants will be left at the mercy of dispersed local reactionaries, who are happy to write their own rules–stamped triumphantly with their personal prejudices and political calculations. Image: Standing FIRM