(my Oped in today’s Baltimore Sun)
When South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilsonbarked out the words “You lie!” to President Barack Obamaduring the president’s address to both houses of Congress, he previewed the tone of the coming immigration debate that Sen.Harry Reid and the White House promise will follow health care reform.
It is going to get ugly.
When Senate Democrats quickly responded to Mr. Wilson’s impertinent comments by “drilling deeper” into their proposals to make sure that undocumented immigrants are even more explicitly excluded from proposed health care exchanges, the die was cast, it seems, for the continued demonization of undocumented immigrants.
As optimistic as I was several months ago for a more progressive immigration policy, I now fear that the Obama White House may be looking in the rear-view mirror for direction on immigration reform.
Consider that President Obama committed to completing the 700-mile colossus of a border wall (at $3.9 million dollars per mile) and extended the government’s commitment to Boeing Inc. to build and oversee construction of a virtual border fence.
Mr. Obama will also extend the abusive 287(g) program – used by authorities in 23 states, including the Frederick County Sheriff’s Department – that gives state and local police permission to enforce federal immigration laws and has resulted in racial profiling as well as the destruction of families through the removal of undocumented immigrants who had been picked up for minor infractions.
It gets worse: The administration has committed $195 million to the “Secure Communities Initiative,” which sends the fingerprints of every immigrant booked at a local jail to federal immigration authorities. This includes immigrants who have never been convicted of anything and may nonetheless find themselves in removal proceedings as a result.
It also continued the much-criticized Real ID program under a new name (Pass ID); the program still turns state-issued driver’s licenses into national identification cards. Finally, it supports an electronic verification system that screens job applicants but has a high error rate and cannot account for fraud and identity theft.
Mr. Obama has doubled down on former President George W. Bush‘s enforcement agenda for two reasons. First, he believes that state and local police, along with state-of-the-art enforcement technology, can serve an effective immigration-control purpose. Second, his early support for Bush policies serves a strategic political agenda: appeasing political opponents who insist on securing the border as a precursor to “regularization” (establishing a path to legalization), which is the core of his comprehensive reform.
The problem is that “securing the border” is an undefinable, unmeasurable and thus unachievable goal. The only measurable thread here has to do with deterring undocumented immigration, which these measures fail to do. The cause of the recent decrease in undocumented immigration is the recession, not the pilot virtual fence in Arizona. The only winners are military and surveillance contractors – and Mr. Obama’s political enemies.
If Joe Wilson and the health care debate provide a clue, the coming immigration debate is likely to be a mean-spirited political circus. The spectacle is likely to play down to society’s most primal fears about immigrants and force additional compromises on what is regrettably an already compromised approach.
It is also likely to embolden Mr. Obama’s enemies to force upon him irrational demands and even more punitive enforcement measures as the trade-off for a watered-down comprehensive overhaul of immigration policy.
The president may eventually get immigration reform that has a more rational visa quota system and family reunification, perhaps even a path toward regularizing the status of undocumented immigrants – but at what cost? The victory may be undermined by further concessions to conservatives in Congress and the border militarization and surveillance contractors who support them.
Robert Koulish is an associate professor of law and society at Philadelphia University and author of the forthcoming book “Immigration and American Democracy: Subverting the Rule of Law.” His e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2009, The Baltimore Sun