Last week, the White House said it wants a two-part immigration reform bill: a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants, in tandem with enhanced border security that will halt further illegal crossings into the United States. But Americans should not accept this combination, born of political necessity, without deeper examination.
A further militarization of the border with Mexico appears to be the immigration debate’s equivalent of the Afghan surge. Just as an escalation of the war in Afghanistan was the political price candidate Barack Obama paid in 2008 for his promise to end the war in Iraq, it’s obvious that more helicopters, razor wire, border agents, and drones to keep Latinos out have become the price being paid to regularize the status of Latinos who are already here.
Yet must every humane initiative be shackled to something inhuman? If so, this reform bargain on immigration will have unintended consequences, comparable to those that followed Obama’s deal with the devil on Middle East wars.
An urgency marks the situation of the 11 million so-called illegals. “Not since the days of slavery,” writes Douglas S. Massey in the current issue of the journal Daedalus, “have so many residents of the United States lacked the most basic social, economic, and human rights.” President Obama’s policy of “deferred action for childhood arrivals” gave some relief to those undocumented immigrants who came as children. Versions of the Dream Act, a measure rewarding college and military service, have passed in many states. But the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants live in constant fear of deportation, forced into a criminal underground that punishes them while giving the lie to American ideals. President Obama and most Democrats want to end this terrible situation, but escape from gridlock is not the same as surrender to it.
The “enhanced border security” that Republicans insisted upon in the Senate, and will again if the House ever takes up the reform bill, poses huge problems of its own. Indeed, the present crisis of a vast population of illegals has its origins in the myth of a closed border. That myth generated the entire phenomenon of criminalized immigrants. And it flies in the face of the new economic reality of the North American Free Trade Zone, where the number of people freely circulating among Mexico, Canada, and the United States should be expanded, not shrunk.
A so-called “circular migration” once allowed foreigners, especially Mexicans, to come and go, particularly for seasonal work. The emphasis on border enforcement since the 1980s put an end to that. With the border closed, migrants who wanted the work had an incentive to settle north of the border — and to bring their families over. In 1988, there were 1.9 million undocumented immigrants. The 11 million here today are the unintended consequence of enhanced border security.
The irony is that, in this same period, beginning with the 1994 NAFTA agreement, the economies of Mexico, the United States, and Canada have formed the largest trade bloc on the planet, with the elimination of most tariffs, and the creation of interdependent investment mechanisms that bind the nations. Such an entwined economic structure could reasonably have been expected to increase mobility of populations — as happened in the European Union, where internal borders were gradually erased. But that expectation was thwarted by post-9/11 insecurity and by an implicit white supremacy that demonizes Latinos.
To up the ante on southern border security now will only compound the mistake embedded in the whole notion of “illegal immigrant.” In the long history of entry to the United States, newcomers were commonly “undocumented” but not regarded thereby as criminal. Prior to the influx of Latino immigrants, there was a fluid transition from unauthorized to permitted: from “no papers” to green card to citizen. Today’s emphasis on legal status — what Michael Jones-Correa and Els de Graauw, also in the latest Daedalus, call “the illegality trap” — ignores the normal pattern of immigrant assimilation going back centuries. If the dynamic has changed, it is because of a blatant but unacknowledged prejudice against Latinos — not because today’s immigrants have some unique disregard for American law. If there’s an immigration crisis, it isn’t the immigrants’ fault.
The solution to all this is to de-emphasize border security and decriminalize immigration. Deportation should be rare. Borders should not be sealed, but managed, with the aim of restoring circular patterns of populations, to the benefit of the regional economy. Razor wire and drones are not remotely part of the answer. If even Obama keeps pretending that they are, the inevitable result will be not enhanced security, but an enhanced immigration crisis.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.