Partisan politics is holding immigrants’ lives and liberty hostage

In the midst of the ongoing US government shutdown that took effect earlier today, people have been accusing politicians on one side or another of holding the nation and its people hostage to partisan politics. The shutdown will have tragic effects for many lives, no doubt — wage earners are forced to stay home from work, needy people are forced to go without the benefits their government promised to them. But let’s not forget the entire class of innocent people whose lives and freedom have been held hostage to partisan politics for years, if not decades: the innocents, citizens or not, who have fallen prey to the US government’s War on Immigrants.

Some months ago, the National Journal ran an article on the current US immigration debate titled What Undocumented Workers Really Want, with the subtitle: It’s not always citizenship. They just want to do their jobs, cash their paychecks, and be left alone. The article mostly focuses on the lives of restaurant owners and their immigrant employees. It illustrates that the political concerns driving the current US immigration debate are extremely remote from the lives of the people who immigration reform is supposed to help. And one takeaway from this is that Republicans may well be right when they accuse Democrats of cynically caring more about the votes of immigrants than the lives of those immigrants.

The article makes a number of observations about the lives of the unauthorised immigrants in US society:

  • They save substantial amounts of money (sometimes in the thousands of dollars) to pay for smuggling them into the US
  • They lose contact with their family, because they cannot leave the US: one woman in the story had to send condolences for the death of her father by mail
  • They fear any contact with the law, because a simple traffic stop could put them away for life
  • They can easily find employment despite their lack of legal documentation, but always live in fear of losing their job should their legal status be discovered
  • Many employers love their unauthorised workers — not because their labour is cheap, but because they value their employees (to the point that one employer in the story told their unauthorised worker upfront who disclosed her unauthorised status to them that they would worry about it only if the government actually went after them)

The article is obviously only one side of the story. But I think this side of the story is one that the larger empirics back up: immigrants in the US, both authorised and unauthorised, have fantastic labour force participation rates. They have lower rates of detention or incarceration. Most immigrants, whether they are legal or not, are ordinary and innocent people.

The law at the present forces these people to live like criminals. They are on the run from the law for a “crime” that, if it can be called a crime at all, occurred years ago in most cases. There is an easy way to fix this: grant legal residency to these people. Lift the sword of Damocles that threatens to deport and separate them from their homes, families, and careers.

Yet as the article observes, this is not what the current debate about US immigration reform turns on. Rather, the Democratic politicians pushing for “reform” want to make these immigrants into full-fledged citizens — whether today, or some point in the future. Democrats are especially fearful that some immigrants never be able to naturalise.

The article hints that Democrats are motivated by the prospect of these immigrants’ votes. Certainly, Republicans are motivated by the prospect of stopping the addition of these new voters. But what excuse does either party have to hold these people’s liberty and the interests of society hostage to their own partisan interests?

On any other issue, we would be appalled if a political party blatantly blocked or supported an initiative, not because they thought it was a good or bad idea, but because they were afraid of its implications for their partisan strength. The ongoing debate about voter identification rules in the US is surely driven in large part by partisan motivations. Yet you will barely find any Democrats protesting stricter voter ID laws because “It prevents Democrats from voting”. Neither will you find Republicans supporting stricter laws for the same reason. Both cite policy reasons for their position, not partisan politics. But politicians and ordinary people think nothing of baldly citing “It will add more Democratic voters to the rolls” as reason enough to support or oppose the regularisation of the 11 million+ unauthorised immigrants in the US.

It’s galling enough that Republicans are blocking immigration policy reforms on the basis that this is harmful to them. But one oft-overlooked point is that Democrats are similarly likely to overlook potential compromises on the basis that this doesn’t generously enough grant citizenship to unauthorised immigrants. In other words, when given the choice between ending the War on Immigrants (but with less-than-ideal citizenship provisions) or continuing it, Democratic politicians have often chosen to stick with the status quo.

The article obliquely agrees with the Democratic spiel that not granting immigrants citizenship makes them a vulnerable subclass of the community. But how would they be any less vulnerable than they are now? The government’s War on Immigrants makes these people vulnerable to deportation at any time that would take them from their jobs, families, and homes. Even if they do not face deportation, they cannot progress in their career because they can lose their job at any time. The government literally has the power to stop all this with the stroke of a pen, and make this entire class of people much less vulnerable to the oppression of harsh employers or overbearing bureaucrats — all this without the politically explosive granting of citizenship.

Why should we hold protection for these people hostage to the partisan interests of any party, Democratic or Republican? For the Democrats, is holding out for citizenship for these immigrants worth allowing the government to continue spending its scarce resources on terrorising them and their communities? Is it truly humane to support continuing government-sponsored terrorism of innocent families and employers simply for the sake of shutting down any chance of a guest-worker programme?

In fairness to the Democrats, they have not been the primary roadblocks in the current US immigration policy debate. The Republican members of the US House of Representatives may be the ones standing in the way of further movement on amnesty for the 11 million unauthorised immigrants like those in the article. But there are still plenty — by one count, 84 — who believe in ending or at least tamping down the War on Immigrants. It should be incumbent on the Democrats in the House to do all they can to work with these Republicans to find an acceptable compromise and move forward. If we can somehow obtain Republican support by tightening provisions in the law for citizenship in return for ending the War on Immigrants, we should seriously consider this option. We can’t just take it off the table.

Immigrants are no different from anyone else. They want to live in peace with their families and earn honest wages. It makes a mockery of the Republicans’ and Democrats’ supposed commitments to the family and to the hard worker when they prefer to keep the War on Immigrants going instead of offering these people a path to legal residency. It’s one thing to play political games about infrastructure projects. It’s a completely different thing to play political games about bringing the entire armed force of the state to bear on people who just want to earn an honest living and live with their families. Keeping the war on these people going, whether for the sake of a broader naturalisation policy or purely playing a partisan game, is absolutely unacceptable.

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John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.

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