December 11, 1998

Anti-Immigration Policies Threaten Democratic Principles, Say Contributors to New Book

Santa Cruz, CA--Having seized the initiative in the debate over immigration, the political Right in the United States has for years steadily eroded the rights of both legal and undocumented immigrants to this country.

A new book, however, brings the voice of progressives to the table: Immigration: A Civil Rights Issue for the Americas (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1998) presents 13 articles by scholars and activists who assert that people who cross borders bring inalienable rights with them.

For new immigrants, such rights include protection from unlawful detention, basic due process rights, and the right to appeal deportation decisions. But Immigration: A Civil Rights Issue for the Americas greatly expands the discussion of U.S. immigration policy, shifting the focus to issues such as the ethics of immigration controls, the meaning of citizenship, the destabilizing effects of anti-immigrant attitudes, and the forces of global capitalism that drive immigration. Two articles address interethnic community relations in the U.S., and others chart the political pressures that shape immigration laws.

The book was coedited by Susanne Jonas, who teaches Latin American and Latino studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Suzie Dod Thomas, assistant managing editor of the journal Social Justice.

"The issue is not whether there should be open borders, because new border controls have not proven effective in stopping immigration," said Jonas. "The issue is the rights of the people who do cross borders. As editors, we wanted to put together a book based on the premise that everyone has certain due process rights when they're on U.S. soil, whether they're citizens, permanent legal residents, or undocumented. If the government insists on its right to regulate the borders, then we should insist on the right to regulate the way migrants are treated."

The editors anticipate that the rights of immigrants will become a primary civil rights issue of the next century, galvanizing the country the way the civil rights of African Americans electrified people in the 1960s.

As evidence of a shift, Jonas cites the recent midterm elections, in which Latinos helped elect a number of moderate candidates who ran against Republicans identified with anti-immigrant initiatives. "Latinos responded to the backlash by voting in larger numbers than before," she said. "In the long run, Latinos are a growing percentage of the population and the electorate, so they're becoming a more important constituency."

Several major pieces of federal legislation in the mid-1990s stripped away many of the rights of immigrants, including the right to appeal deportation decisions and the rights of even legal immigrants to receive benefits. Coupled with California's Proposition 187, which passed overwhelmingly in 1994 only to be declared largely unconstitutional, these exclusionary initiatives represented a major anti-immigrant backlash disguised as "immigration reform," said Jonas.

"These laws haven't stop-ped immigration," she said. "What they're doing is something much more pernicious, which is to take away the rights of immigrants. Washington politicians are narrowly focused on the most effective ways to exclude immigrants of color from the U.S. and to punish those who are here."

Perhaps most unnerving, warns Jonas, has been a move in Congress to repeal the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to deny citizenship to children born in the U.S. to undocumented parents. "When you start chipping away at the Constitution, that threatens our democracy- -not only for immigrants but for all Americans."

Given the demographic and economic changes rippling through U.S. society, Jonas says that public education will be crucial to the outcome of the debate over immigration. The editors of Immigration: A Civil Rights Issue for the Americas hope their book will contribute to public understanding of the threats that anti-immigrant attitudes pose for all Americans. At the same time, they hope the book can help address and diminish the tensions among progressives about whether equal emphasis should be placed on the rights of refugees, permanent legal residents, and undocumented immigrants.

"It's clear that issues affecting immigrants--Latinos and Latin American immigrants particularly--are going to be very high profile issues for a long time," said Jonas.

Susanne Jonas is an authority on the politics of Latin America, particularly Central America, and of Latin American migration to the U.S. She is currently completing a book about the peace process in Guatemala.

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