May 19, 2006

Senate Bill Gets Harsher; America We Have a Problem

By Shankar Narayan
New America Media


In Texas, a 16-year-old Hispanic boy is brutally beaten and left for dead by two white teens, who shout anti-Mexican epithets as they sodomize him with a metal pipe.

In Seattle, a longstanding leader at a local mosque is abruptly detained without bond, purportedly for immigration violations—before the government, under the loose rules of immigration court, tries to link him to terrorism.

Around the country, Cambodians living in the U.S. since early childhood are ripped from their U.S. citizen families and deported back to a country they have no connection with—for pleading guilty to crimes they had no idea would make them deportable.

These are just a few examples of the human suffering caused by our broken immigration system and the escalating rhetoric surrounding it. The underlying these injustices is fear of immigrants, fear of a Mexican invasion, fear of terrorism, fear of “criminal aliens.” The list is lengthy, but these fears have led to irrational, retributive laws that have made our immigration system the mess it is today.

These fear-driven immigration laws—and the immense pain they create for individuals, families, and communities—should be of deep concern not just to immigrants, but to all who live in America. When commentators can shout with impunity that we should use a Berlin-wall-style shoot-on-sight policy to undocumented immigrants, well, America, we have a problem.

The politics of fear and violent nativism are amply evident in the immigration bills Congress is currently debating. In December, the House passed the Sensenbrenner bill—the most anti-immigrant legislation in 80 years. And although the “compromise” bill that the Senate began debating this week is marginally better, it massively erodes basic civil rights for immigrants while managing to also fall short on legalizing this country’s millions of undocumented individuals.

Specific provisions in the compromise Senate bill—keeping in mind that this is supposedly the “good” bill to the House’s “bad” one—reveal deep-seated fear and punitiveness toward immigrants. It would allow immigrants to be detained indefinitely, overturning established Supreme Court precedent, which outlawed permanent incarceration. It would expand the range of situations in which detention would be mandatory, an expensive proposition for taxpayers, but a lucrative one for private prisons. The bill would criminalize even relatively minor violations by immigrants, creating dozens of new ways to deport non-citizens. The government would be able to deport many immigrants—even longstanding residents—without a hearing before a court. Courts would often be unable to review illegal immigration decisions. In short, if the bill were enacted as-is, the due process rights of immigrants, who are already among our most vulnerable and voiceless, would be eviscerated.

The compromise Senate bill falls short in other ways, too. Under-funded, untrained local police would be turned into immigration agents, creating mistrust between communities and those entrusted with protecting and serving them. The border would be further militarized, adding to the misery of communities of color there. Although the bill contains a legalization program, its miserly fine print ensures that millions of undocumented individuals would be barred from legalizing. Advocates are trying to fix some of these provisions, but it’s likely that the bill will, if anything, become worse. This kind of fear-driven proposal can’t properly be called immigration reform; it’s really immigration regression.

We deserve far better than this from Congress. As the millions of people who rallied for immigration reform have demonstrated, we are in the midst of a new civil rights movement. The demonstrators didn’t march for mean-spirited bills like Sensenbrenner or the Senate compromise. Rather, their action was a visceral cry for their country—one that holds itself out as a beacon of democracy and human rights worldwide—to stop fearing them and start seeing them as human beings. It was a cry for comprehensive reform of a harsh and irrational system that has destroyed countless families and lives. It’s high time Congress started listening.

Like the civil rights movement of the 1960s, this new movement is really about us. We as a society must choose the values we live out. Will we accept the small, fearful rhetoric embodied in Sensenbrenner and the Senate compromise, ignoring the pain and suffering they cause in Hispanic, Muslim, Cambodian and countless other immigrant communities? Or will we have the courage to embody the promise of America that drew so many here in the first place—the big, bold, all-encompassing spirit of our Constitution, that extends its protections to all who live here?

The Constitution embodies courage, not fear. If fair play and justice for all are fundamental American values, let’s live up to them. Let’s push Congress to be courageous and give us real immigration reform that reflects those values.

Shankar Narayan IS policy director at Hate Free Zone Washington in Seattle, and co-chair of the steering committee of the Detention Watch Network, a national coalition working to reform the U.S. immigration detention system.

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