Immigration Policy: Focus, Initiate and Stop Reacting

Opinion/Editorial

By Arnoldo S. Torres with the National Institute for Latino Policy

I want to focus on the imperative of altering the narrative set by this president and his supporters and proposing policies that are comprehensive, inclusive, and responsive to the needs of the nation.  Regardless of any success or failure this year to pass any elements of immigration reform, I cannot underscore enough the urgency and importance for altering the false narrative.

Simultaneously it is imperative that Latinos prepare an immigration reform alternative that allows the public and policymakers to recognize a policy path that can be more effective and humane while protecting our border and internal security. We must not be ethnocentric but rather defy xenophobic nationalism, avoid isolation—not advocate an “open border” but be realistic, balanced, practical, and fair.

Politics have long reigned over policy on the reform of U.S. immigration law. This president’s actions and words over the last month cannot be better examples of this ugly and dangerous reality. In the past three weeks, the President ratcheted up his rhetoric on immigration at his Michigan rally.  We also saw and heard in Michigan and before military audiences that despite there being more than 100 million Americans who can trace their history to Ellis Island, there are far too many who today stand in support of the very sentiments and “know-nothing” values that would have denied their ancestors entry to this nation. The words of fear, anger, and demagoguery sound so similar to what was said in the early 19th century when we experienced the most significant movement of immigrants to this nation from Europe.

Up to now, immigration advocates and Latino elected have responded in kind, defensively and with emotion. The liberal groups funding immigrant rights groups seem more interested in media coverage than creating a strategy that can overcome the political extremism that has evolved in the nation.

False Narratives

The false narrative around the causes and consequences of immigration has a clear intent: repeat it enough times that the public comes to believe that undocumented immigrants are criminals involved in trafficking drugs, who threaten the national security of this nation, advocate for open borders, do not reflect the “best” of their countries of origin, and live in sanctuary cities that are “breeding grounds” for criminals. This must change. It dictates and corrupts the substance and policy path for solutions.

Those advancing this image select anecdotal examples to bolster their mean, racist and xenophobic values. This president does this virtually every time he speaks to his base. Despite his demagoguery comments in Michigan and his threat to close down the federal government if he does not get funding for his border wall, even substantial numbers of evangelicals continue to support an agnostic, at best, in the name of the Lord!

Latinos, immigrant advocates, and liberal foundations spend most of their time responding and reacting, not initiating. This has always placed us in a defensive position while allowing false narratives to be circulated and take hold in the public’s mind and with policymakers.

Many who support these claims fail to come to terms with the facts that immigrants—legal, undocumented and refugees—at the turn of the century were engaged in organized crime in Jewish, Italian, Irish, and English immigrant communities.  Many immigrants that came to the Island of Hope came from countries that fought against the U.S. in World War I and II.

In response to the constant hateful words, bully tactics and persecuting policies on immigration, we have allowed this behavior to infect our judgment.  We have failed to recognize that all immigrants are not Jesus-like—we are human! We have imperfections, and many will do bad things that cause intended and unintended consequences to others.  When these things have happened, we have not condemned such actions, we have, at best, ignored them for fear that we are giving into this narrative.  In failing to denounce such acts we have contributed and strengthened this narrative.

Similarities of Yesterday and Today’s Immigrants

We must remind this nation that today’s immigrants and refugees have much in common with those at the turn of the century. Some efforts have been made to emphasize these points, but they are primarily secondary arguments in the national media.

Latino voices on this issue spend most of their time defending their concerns and aspirations for legalization by engaging in campaigns of embarrassing Republican and some Democrat elected officials. While many deserve it, this is a losing tactic which in most situations has merely served to satisfy the expectations and stereotypes applied to Latinos.

Immigrants yesterday and today have experienced many of the same “push factors” that caused them to make this most difficult journey. They arrive today for the same reasons some 12 million entered between 1892 and 1954. As an Italian immigrant is credited with saying, “If America did not exist, we would have had to invent it for the sake of our survival.” We share the same experiences of living in countries of origin that serve as a police state, suppress economic opportunities, deny education, and ignore the concepts of a democratic society. Contrary to the statements of immigration nationalists, people do not decide to journey to this nation because they want to be Democrats or Republicans. Freedom is what all seek!

Yesterday’s immigrants primarily came via boats in steerage class that government reports described as, “The unattended vomit of the seasick, the odors of the not-too-clean bodies, the reek of food, the awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms make the atmosphere in steerage such that it is a marvel that human flesh can endure it.”

Today’s immigrants must walk through deserts, hostile countries, risk life and limb on trains, pay thousands of dollars up-front and after they enter—if they enter—the U.S. They are profit centers for organized smuggling rings and transportation for illegal drugs. Many perish on this path because they are easily exploited and manipulated.

The descendants of past immigrants sit in harsh judgment of those fleeing the same situations their forefathers were fortunate to leave. They argue that their ancestors are different from today’s immigrants which is an ignorance ripe for the type of exploitation that has been growing since the 1980s and only getting worse with time. There is no better example of this ignorance and hovering xenophobic nationalism than the comment made by White House Chief of Staff and former General John Kelly, who stated that the majority of immigrants are “… not people that would easily assimilate into the U.S. … They don’t speak English … They don’t integrate well, they don’t have skills.”  This is almost precisely the very words used to describe the immigrants that came from Ireland, and all of Europe.

There are NO immigrant groups in this nation that have a perfect profile and behavior regardless of when they entered!

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Latinos and Immigration Reform – Part 1 of 4 Parts

The Need for A Critical Analysis For Immigration Reform

By Arnoldo S. Torres with National Institute of Latino Policy

This is an analysis of the immigration debate and the responsibility Latinos must examine on the strategy and tactics applied and the corresponding consequences of these actions.

Now that DACA and the President’s immigration enforcement package have been placed on hold by Congress and the courts, all parties have some time to try and work out a short-term or long-term compromise. Latino and DACA “leaders” must step back and consider the strategy they have been following, its pros and what I believe are many cons. It is an arduous task they have taken on, and I respect and admire the determination, emotion, and commitment they have demonstrated to date.

However, the strategy they have been following has had little success on the bottom line, while having severe consequences. It’s great to be mentioned by Hollywood actors at the 90th Oscar Awards, but that does not provide the relief and fairness being sought and earned by hardworking people whose motivations are no different than those who migrated to the U.S. at the turn of the 19th century.

Over the last 17 years, Latinos have seen how fear and anger has manifested itself towards our U.S.-born and immigrant communities. Despite all who suffered (including many immigrants from many parts of the world) from the horrific and permanent scars caused by the attacks on September 11, 2001, we began to experience the unprecedented damage to our national psyche and identification.  The door of anti-immigrant sentiment had been nudged open.

With the beginning of the presidential campaign in 2015, the door came off the hinges. We have been experiencing a level of intolerance, scapegoating, ignorance, nationalist xenophobia and racism most had not seen or felt before. Those of us who remember that these attitudes and behavior have long been a part of our history in this nation also remember the ugly experiences of our parents and grandparents. I cannot help but believe that fixing that damn door may not be possible after what we have been through the last seven years.

Arnoldo Torres

Latinos need to accept the reality that we have a fair share of responsibility for what has happened to us in this immigration dynamic. The perspective and analysis I offer do not come at an easy time nor will it be well received by many. However, I ask that you look beyond the political correctness lens that will surely be applied.

Some will say how dare I question what Latino advocates on immigration have been doing. I would respond how dare there is no dialogue or transparency of what has been going on for years with no tangible results!  It is essential and imperative that all so-called “movements del pueblo, of conscious” have a critical analysis of their strategy, tactics, plans, and results.

It was Latino “Dreamers” who accepted the political argument and strategy that said, “These kids are not to blame for the actions of their parents who brought them to the U.S. illegally.” This political argument should never have been made, and the political strategy never followed. But liberal left and “progressive” foundations began to fund immigrant rights groups during the Obama years, and this was the argument and strategy followed to a tee. Democratic leaders went right along.

“Dreamers” were portrayed as being “Americans” who have and would contribute significantly to the nation because they were educated, had or were willing to serve in the military and their faces and pictures made for excellent optics. It was clear that the strategist behind this approach believed that these pictures and young faces would be hard to condemn.  Another clear element in this self-defeating strategy was the confident feeling that Hilary would take care of all remaining undocumented family members.

This line of argument and thinking was dishonorable and unfair to the parent generation in the U.S. Parents who entered the US without papers did not do so to hurt their children. Their parents were seeking what parents all over the world want, economic survival and opportunity for their family. The parent generation of the “Dreamers,” like their parents before them, were recruited and encouraged to come to the U.S. by specific industries. Over time these industries became dependent on and preferred these immigrant workers over U.S.-born workers. In other words, Mexicans were not the cause of any displacement, the economic market and U.S.-born workers work ethic changed. This process formally and informally began during the first World War because of labor shortages.

These generations of undocumented immigrants have made exceptional contributions to this nation up until this very time in our history.  They have labored hard in whatever jobs they secured, they have paid taxes, made sure their children did well in school so one day they would meet the criteria for the DACA program, they purchased homes, started small and medium businesses, took jobs that paid little and offered little protection or benefits but were indispensable to our economy, and seldom complained!

Shame on the Republicans who have portrayed these generations of hard-working people as welfare dependents, criminals, drug smugglers, or “not the best.” Shame on Democrats for speaking out of both sides of their mouths while playing politics with the desperation of vulnerable people, and hubris and inexperience of youth that found a voice. Shame on the liberal foundations and the Frank Sharrys (America’s Voice) in this network who were fighting other battles besides the one that was facing good people.

This unprecedented investment in the immigrant community has undoubtedly raised the profile of DACA recipients, helped fund the building of capacity and infrastructure of immigrant community advocacy groups. They indeed developed and gave voice to the individuals who became DACA leaders. However, these liberal/progressive institutions and their public faces contributed significantly to the strategy, talking points, and tactics that put exclusive focus and political capital on DACA recipients. DACA has pushed aside all the other immigration policy, domestic and international issues confronting the large Latino family that exists in the U.S.

I do not doubt that there is good faith and that there are many individuals on the left that are well motivated and committed. However, there should be no doubt that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” This side of the political spectrum has a clear pattern of telling us what is in minorities’ best interest and how to get there. They may not see it as clearly as many of us have over decades, but do not doubt its existence, prevalence, and negative consequences.

The challenge Latinos and Dreamers must overcome is the inclination to place critical issues before us in only a political context. We seriously ignore the role policy has in deciding the future and moving the needle. I am not naïve enough to maintain that perfection should be the enemy of good, but I certainly hope I will not hear perfection should not be our motivation. Politics is not the engine that drives all things and cannot replace sound policy proposals that are opposed because they do not satisfy our bias or ignorance.  Bad public policy makes for bad politics and presents intended and unintended consequences for the future. It is a dangerous habit to break, as evidenced by what Congress has been doing for far too long.

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