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The bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth is a fitting moment to ponder the state of our fractious and fractured nation of immigrants. Ending his First Inaugural Address, President Lincoln spoke prophetically in words that could well describe the path America must pursue if the deep divide over immigration policy is ever to be bridged:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
The hate speech and hate crimes, the demonization of immigrants by some, cannot be allowed to represent to the world the values that America holds dear. The hypocrisy and prejudice of non-native nativists, whose forebears displaced the indigenous peoples of North America, cannot be permitted to stanch the lifeblood of this country, its ever-vibrant tradition of renewal and reinvention through immigration.
The justifiable fears of many Americans about an economy run amok ought not blind us to the manifold contributions to our prosperity that immigrants have always made and, if permitted, will continue to make. Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express put the point eloquently to New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman:
Dear America, please remember how you got to be the wealthiest country in history. It wasn't through protectionism, or state-owned banks or fearing free trade. No, the formula was very simple: build this really flexible, really open economy, tolerate creative destruction so dead capital is quickly redeployed to better ideas and companies, pour into it the most diverse, smart and energetic immigrants from every corner of the world and then stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat.
Others among our better celestial spirits, the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, held a press conference with Members of Congress on Feb. 11 to announce the launch of the campaign for "Prayer, Renewal and Action on Immigration" and to publish its Interfaith Platform on Humane Immigration Reform. Serendipitously, the secular Migration Policy Institute just released a scholarly report and 36 recommendations on how our broken immigration system can be repaired and made to function.
Whether the motivation be a hard-nosed pragmatism founded on dollars and sense, a faith-based commitment (reflected in Bruce and Judy Hake's article, The Scriptural Foundations Of An Open Immigration Policy, and Rev. Joan M. Maruskin's accompanying compilation of passages from the Koran), or the studied views of respected immigration policy experts, the time is now to vivify President Lincoln's profoundly humane and practical vision for America.
Immigration reform cannot wait for a more appropriate day. With courage in Congress, the White House and among the American people, comprehensive immigration reform will sooner than later be enacted, so that we can "yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely [we] will be, by the better angels of our nature."
You might think from the title of this post that I'm all set to rant about the upcoming April 1 opening of the H-1B filing season -- the period known in the trade as the time of Preparation H. You might think I'm poised to critique the annual government lottery that causes so much employer and foreign-worker hand wringing as they fret about whether the quota will dry up in a day or two, as it has in the recent past. If you thought so, you would be wrong.
I write instead to decry two other quotas, one alleged and the other well established, both involving the enforcement side of the immigration house.
The first is described in an Associated Press report. It seems that on Monday the U.S. Border Patrol mounted an investigation of allegations by agents in the Riverside (CA) region. These Border Patrollers complain that their January quota on apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants had jumped to 150 per month from 100 in November and December. A failure to meet the quota, agents allege, would result in some form of unspecified punishment. Reminiscent of arguments over affirmative action, the appointed government spokesperson hinted that the incident may be just one big misunderstanding: It's about "numerical goals," not quotas.
The second enforcement quota, dubbed Operation Endgame and developed in stealth by the Bush Administration, was initially intended to target foreign fugitives from our criminal justice system who presented clear and present dangers to national security or public safety. As the Migration Policy Institute recently reported, however, somewhere along the way that quota-driven strategy lost its raison d'être. Endgame's denouement proved a mission too creepy. The agents began targeting run-of-the-mill immigration status violators instead.
With both of these benighted quotas, the drive to "make the numbers" seems to have blinded the quota cops from a clear sight of their statutory mission. The quest apparently became a daily numbers game. It should never be just about the numbers, although they do look impressive in an ICE press release, or in an appearance before Congress or Lou Dobbs. If foreign-born criminals or terrorists can't be found, then pinching a visa overstayer instead will apparently just have to do.
I sense that the jig may soon be up, however, given this recent directive from Janet Napolitano, the new Secretary of Homeland Security:
Fugitive Operation Teams. Please provide the current metrics of fugitive apprehension and removal (clearly differentiate the number of fugitives that are actually removed versus those aliens unlawfully present who are simply encountered by the teams while on assignment). How can fugitives be more effectively prioritized for these purposes and what steps can be taken to expedite removal? [Bolding in original.]
In just over two weeks, on Feb. 20, "relevant components and offices of the department" must respond to her politely phrased request (she did say "[p]lease"). Stay tuned for the answer, even if it only distracts us temporarily from the painful season of Preparation H.
Federal contractors, Congress and the Obama administration have yet another respite, this time until May 21, 2009, to decide what to do about E-Verify. In a notice to be published today in the Federal Register, contractors and subs who enter into covered agreements with the federal government need not enroll for now in E-Verify.
Meantime, Congress needs to decide the fate of this controversial Web 2.0 method, jointly developed by the Social Security Administration and the Homeland Security Department, for employers to determine the right of new hires and some current employees of federal contractors to work in the United States. Although embraced by many in federal and state government, E-Verify is technically on life support; its enabling legislation sunsets in the first week in March. Yet House proponents of the program have slipped into that chamber's version of the economic stimulus bill racing to the President's desk a requirement that every private employer receiving stimulus money enroll in E-Verify.
E-Verify still sports an unacceptably high rejection rate of roughly four percent, disqualifying a sizable component of the workforce from the jobs for which they may be authorized. It also requires a substantial investment of employer staff time and lost opportunity costs to manage the strict deadlines to resolve the feared TNCs (in bureaucratese, "tentative non-confirmations"). The TNCs are issued by federal cyber-cops to allow authorized workers to fight the government's claim that they lack the right to work.
How does diversion of employer staff and mistaken, autopilot rejection of workers promote economic rejuvenation? The country is already moving quickly toward government control of the economy, with nationalization of banks and auto companies a real possibility. Can we afford to let the same government department that suffers the deaths of immigrants in detention stifle the national economy with a not-ready-for-prime-time program of authorized-worker rejection?
The first days of the Obama administration have already witnessed a new form of alternative energy. Long pent-up momentum has been released in the forward movement of rallying cries for comprehensive immigration reform. With no time to wait or patience, the President's campaign supporters urge quick action. Others urge action on backlog reduction at USCIS and the Labor Department.
In the yin and yang of immigration, however, immigration advocates are heartened by the negative energy of just-in-time scrutiny of the Bush administration's twilight adoption of immigration regulations. The new President's Chief of Staff has issued a memo that urges the Executive Branch department heads to review for 60 days all new and proposed regulations. The memo makes exceptions for national security and the public welfare. But it also raises fresh hopes that ill-advised initiatives like the federal contractor E-Verify mandate might be reconsidered or put on ice until the error-prone system is improved.
Like a gyroscope spinning in perfect balance, the Obama administration must channel the positive energy of reform. It must also rethink the failed Bush late-term policy of enforcement-only.
The end of one presidency and the start of another often spark strange behaviors in Washington, especially when spiked with the catnip of immigration.
Remember the Nannygates of years past when Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood (Clinton nominees for Attorney General) and Linda Chavez (Bush's Secretary of Labor Designate) all fell from grace for housing or employing unauthorized foreign workers. Strangely, however, this year, Treasury nominee, Timothy Geithner, is defended for payroll tax violations by Republicans who whisper nary a word about his foreign housekeeper's expired work permit.
Witness also George Bush last week speaking to a group of Texas reporters and regretting that he pushed his failed bid to privatize Social Security in 2004 rather than fight early and hard for immigration reform: "I'm very disappointed that [comprehensive immigration reform] didn't pass . . . not for political standing or for Latinos, but because it was best for the country." Mr. Bush, in today's Farewell Address to the Nation, still seems to understand that America "is a nation that inspires immigrants to risk everything for the dream of freedom."
Yet his Administration in the past fiscal year doubled federal prosecutions of immigrants rather than aggressively pursue serious crimes. As one unnamed prosecutor told the New York Times:
"'A lot of the guys I work with did nothing but the most complex cases -- taking down multigenerational crime families, international crime, drug trafficking syndicates -- you know, big fish,' said the prosecutor, who did not want to be identified as criticizing the department he works for. 'Now these folks are dealing with these improper entry and illegal reentry cases.' He added, 'It's demoralizing for them, and us.'"
This same mania over immigration enforcement was also apparent at today's confirmation hearing for Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, the Obama pick for Secretary of Homeland Security, an encounter that the Immigration Policy Center likened to a "tea party" that left precious time for serious discussion of the new Administration's policies on comprehensive immigration reform:
"Serving more as a tea party than a rigorous cross examination, confirmation hearings are notoriously poor venues for deep policy discussions. The Governor has a wealth of relevant experience and a deep understanding of all of the issues about which the Senators questioned her. However, the hearing left little room for drilling down into the specifics of complex policy issues. While discussion of enforcement was plentiful, questions and (therefore answers) about what to do with 12 million people living without documentation in the U.S. were in short supply."
As we approach the cool and collected era of "no drama" Obama, the new President should recognize that the problem of the vulnerable underclass of immigrants lacking legal status will not go away. The Migration Policy Institute reports that, despite the imploding U.S. economy, undocumented immigrants are staying put, notwithstanding anectdotal evidence to suggest that they're homeward bound. The solution, then, is not to repeat the mistake of Bush's temporizing on immigration. Just as the incoming President is reading history books to find ways to fix the economic mess we're in, he should likewise be sure to remember recent history, or as George Santayana reminds us, we all may be condemned to repeat it.