The security of the U.S.-Mexico border has become the focus of comprehensive immigration reform, comprehensive has come to mean piecemeal, and reform has been lost in political rhetoric. Somewhere in the political process immigrants have been forgotten.
I have lived and served on the U.S.-Mexico border for the majority of my life. I know these immigrants. The great majority of them are hard-working people with a deep spirituality who value family and the common good. They are not terrorists, drug dealers, or public welfare dependents. They are families whose lives have been undermined by poverty. Their poverty is often a reflection of the state of the economy of their countries, but many of them have also been affected by regional and global U.S. economic agreements.
Consider the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on corn farmers in Mexico. NAFTA left over 2 million Mexican corn farmers and their families destitute. This past spring I had a conversation about immigration reform with Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley. When I mentioned that Mexican immigrants were in the U.S. because they could not feed their families he patronizingly told me that the U.S. was not responsible for taking care of Mexico’s economic woes. When I reminded him that Iowa corn subsidies included in NAFTA have contributed to the undermining of the livelihood of Mexican farmers and their families he quickly ended our meeting.
Some of our Congressional leaders argue that securing the border is necessary so that we never again find ourselves with 11 million undocumented immigrants to deal with. I have been at table with Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, when she has stated that our southern border is more secure today than it has ever been, but our Congressional leaders aren’t listening because it isn’t what they want to hear. Acknowledging the fact that the border is secure would force our Congressional leaders to address the real reasons for our broken immigration policies beginning with the fact that unjust immigration policies built upon unjust economic agreements will never produce anything other than injustice, human suffering and a lack of security.
Where is leadership for comprehensive and humane immigration reform to come from in this country? Congress is failing us. And the rumor across the country is that President Obama can’t be more aggressive in his efforts on comprehensive immigration reform because if Congress were to believe that the President is leading on the matter it would reject whatever would come to the table. What a sorry state of political leadership.
Today in the U.S. there are immigrant children living in fear that their parents will be carried away by ICE. Young people with their whole life ahead of them are in despair because the only country they know, a country they love and have placed their hope in, daily tells them that they do not count. Immigrant men and women are increasingly burdened by long hours of under paid work, the lack of adequate housing, food, medical care, and the stress of living in the shadows of society, always having to look over their shoulder because any small misstep could bring them to the attention of public authorities from the police officers who are supposed to keep them safe in their neighborhoods to the Border Patrol and cause their separation from their family.
These are the same people who work hard to put food on our tables at prices we are willing to pay, clean our homes, care for our aging and sick parents not to mention our children, and serve us in an abundance of other ways so that we can enjoy life. They pay taxes and social security without seeing much if any benefit from it. These are immigrant men and women, children and young people who not only deserve better, but whose struggle will bring judgment upon this country for decades to come if we don’t begin to treat them justly.
I recently participated in an immigration forum in Hawaii. Being there reminded me of the great work of Senator Mazi Hirono in support of immigrant families. She gets it. The heart of true and just comprehensive immigration reform is about families. Comprehensive immigration reform must include the reunification of immigrant families, including LGBT families. It must include a pathway to citizenship or families will continue to be undermined for generations to come. And it must include the just treatment of immigrant workers. As a country birthed, built and nurtured by immigrants, we should expect no less of our Congressional leaders.