Friday, August 7, 2009

Immigration reform need not be a triple-headed hydra

This week the Obama administration finally announced a long overdue revamping of its immigration detention system.

The system, comprised of a hodgepodge network of 350 unregulated local jails, privately owned prisons, and federal correction facilities run by DHS has come under attack for it's failure to adhere to even the most basic civil and human rights standards. Numerous groups including Amnesty International and the government's own Accountability Office have documented the inadequacies in the system.

The failures include; inadequate or absent medical care leading to the preventable deaths of 90 detainees since 2003, young children held for long periods without access to education or recreation, detainees denied access to legal representation or family members, and the list goes on.

Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence of the failure of the system, the Obama administration until now refused to address the situation, even after having been ordered to do so by the Federal Courts.

So this weeks announcement that DHS will begin to finally take some control over the situation by reviewing the contracts with it's detention providers, establishing oversight, and ending some of the most grievous practices, is a welcome change.

But it is far from the sweeping kind of CHANGE™ we were led to believe to expect from this new administration.

Candidate Obama, time and time again on the stump promised sweeping, almost revolutionary change.

He challenged the nation to think outside the box and start to look at old problems through new eyes.

Where Bill Clinton claimed to feel our pain, Obama promised that working together we could end it… sí se puede

But now we find that from healthcare reform to immigration policy, Obama does not so much offer real change… but rather, promises to more competently and effectively administer the same failed policies of the past.

As DHS announced its "sweeping" new changes to the immigrant detention system , there was an underlying message of …"don’t get your hopes up folks …we ain't changing things that much."

Assistant Secretary of DHS, John Morton, while touting the move to a "truly civil detention system" made sure to add in that large scale detention would remain to be the norm…it would just be done "more humanely." He added that the new system would move from one focused on incarceration to one focused on deportation.

DHS head, Janet Napolitano, added that she actually foresaw an increase in the number of detianees held in the government's new "humane" prisons.

But this should come as no surprise coming from an administration that has voiced support for expanding the 287G system that gives local honchos like Arizona's Joe Arpaio carte blanche to terrorize whole communities. Or that looks to expand the failed e-verify system. Or worse yet, embraces Chuck Schumer's Orwellian national biometric identification system.

But this is all because rather than thinking outside the box . .. Obama seems firmly encased in it.

He and his brain trust simply can't separate themselves from the failed paradigm of viewing immigration policy as a matter of regulation of a criminal activity.

This is the same thinking that has produced every piece of failed immigration policy since 1986.

Rather than addressing the underlying social and economic realities both here and abroad that drive global migration, and working on a system that rationally an effectively works within those realities, this thinking has produced a system that relies upon punitive deterrents to attempt to regulate the flow of immigration.

This becomes evident when viewing actual legislation. Hundreds of pages are usually dedicated to various aspects of how best to punish those who enter the country without permission …and scant few pages dedicated to how the decisions as to whom, and under what circumstances, that permission should be granted.

This had led to the idea that reform of the system simply must contain three key components:

1. a method to allow businesses to get needed workers
2. a method to keep everyone else out
3. a method to deal with those who came anyway…now that they've become needed workers.

This has led to the three-headed hydra of Comprehensive Immigration Reform that mandates guest workers, increased enforcement and a path to legalization

In the minds of policy makers these three components seem to be inseparable.

Business interests can't envision an immigration system that doesn't supply them with needed workers, especially if they can be sent home and exchanged for fresh cheap replacements periodically

Advocacy groups can't imagine a system that doesn't normalize the status of the millions already here without permission.

And both are willing to view criminalization and punishment as a means of regulating immigrant flow.

But here is where that CHANGE™ Obama had promised so eloquently during his campaign should translate into a new mindset in DC.

Perhaps he and all those working behind the scenes to enact a new version of Comprehensive Immigration Reform should take a fresh view of the situation and finally start to look at the problems in the current system in a truly COMPREHENSIVE manner…. "Comprehensive" as in encompassing ALL the various push and pull mechanisms in play that foster migration and the system's current inability to deal with them.

If reform were enacted properly, all the interested parties would be able to get basically what they need or want from the legislation, and there would be little need to worry about enforcement and punishments. A truly functioning immigration system would not create millions of undocumented immigrants and hundreds of thousands of detainees in prisons …It's that simple. The hard part is figuring out how to reform the system to reach that goal.

Instead of worrying about how best to build walls along our borders, or punish workers or employers, our leaders should figure out a better way to allow immigrants to enter the country legally, or better yet…have the kind of opportunities in their home countries that would allow them to stay if they wish.

But this would take big thinking … grand vision … and relentless political will.

Something we saw from candidate Obama …but sadly, not yet from President Obama.

As I've said before:

We will judge future legislation and policy not by how successful it's been at apprehending, deporting, or incarcerating migrants ... but rather in how little apprehension, deportation and incarceration is necessary

Our leaders should keep that in mind as they work to reform a dismally failed system.


Anonymous said...

Personally I have always thought one of the best ways to help solve the problem was to solve Mexico's problems. We spend billions on foreign aid, perhaps we would be better off focusing our aid to our neighbors.

Provide incentive for companies to expand to mexico since they are leaving us anyway, etc. Work exchnage problems, build your economy and build a better trade partnership. But do things along those lines. A strong Mexico is in our best interest. I suspect people rather live in their homelands

MikeFrizzi said...

While it would be very nice to plan future action based off past expression of intent, this administration has shown that it cannot be counted on in that regard. Obama promised to reform the eb5 visa program, too, but he has not even mentioned it since that platfrom helped him get elected. I am hoping so very much that Obama's next 3 years will see more action on the immigrant front than it has in its first year..Although, in all fairness, showing LESS action would be a difficult task to achieve.