Point of View

Immigration reform: Balancing security, suffering and parental love

June 28, 2013 

As the daughter of Mexicans who migrated to the U.S. in the 1950s, I take in with deep sadness the negotiations on the immigration reform bill currently before the Congress. My parents spent their early life in post-revolutionary Mexico, where the constitutional gains of that struggle had not yet materialized in the worlds they inhabited. They came here, as the title of 2011 Chris Weitz film captured, for “a better life.”

My father found work at General Motors, where the United Auto Workers negotiated health and work benefits for blue-collar employees that rival my own as a researcher at a well-endowed, prestigious private university. My mother worked in a smaller factory along with other immigrant parents, many of them fathers, where she witnessed their challenges in raising children on more modest wages than my father’s.

Through my parents’ ability to imagine, work and love and because of their participation in the now long-gone virtuous circle of industry, organized labor and the government, they raised four successful children by giving us what they didn’t have: a formal education.

My parents supported this effort every way they could. They were not criminals or terrorists, but loving parents like everyone else’s and like the many immigrant parents among us – working men and women that the Associated Press, until recently, had insisted on calling illegal. Such terminology is necessary to build a case against undocumented immigrant fathers and mothers. Such terminology conforms to the broader discourse of criminality and terror and makes possible massive deportations and the argument for the need to have a secure border.

I read in the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” that the U.S. has the right to keep the country safe and prosperous. The Hoeven-Corker Border Surge amendment, approved by the Senate, will add to this bill multibillion-dollar fencing, 20,000 more border patrol officers and drones.

I don’t disagree with the right and duty to keep a country safe and prosperous, but it is erroneous to believe that fences, guards and drones will achieve this. Deportations hurt the economy; smaller communities where immigrants live and work can become virtual ghost towns after worksite raids and checkpoint deportations.

In 2012, for instance, the Texas Tribune estimated that deporting even just 15 percent of the undocumented immigrant population would result in an annual loss of $11.7 billion for the state’s gross product. The estimated cost of this military-like presence that the U.S. wants to create between it and its third-largest trading partner and No. 1 Spring Break partner, Mexico, is $30 billion.

The Mexican government is curiously quiet about this, having cut its deal with the devil after relinquishing substantial control and sovereignty in its internal affairs to the United States through the Merida Initiative. That initiative requires Mexico to get tough at its southern border with Guatemala, where many more fathers and mothers from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras risk their lives on “La Bestia,” the death train known as the “Beast” that many take to make it to the U.S.

Eighty-one percent of the U.S.-Mexico border already meets the Department of Homeland Security’s highest standards of control; the current bill seeks 91 percent. These billions of dollars would be better used as a Global South Marshall Plan to create safe and fair work opportunities there, where many are currently pushed out of the job market through unfair labor practices, such as age and gender discrimination. It can be used here to address funding inequities in the education of the mostly U.S.-born children of immigrant parents.

The way to build a safe and prosperous America is not with fences, guards or drones, but by creating the conditions that allow immigrant families to do what my parents and other immigrants of their generation did: Move their children from working class to middle class in 16 short years through education.

It is time for our congressional representatives to wake up to the human suffering across borders, much of it brought on by unchecked global economic policies and practices that fuel the migration of the poor to rich countries. It is time for this Congress to hand down comprehensive immigration reform that puts immigrant fathers, mothers and their mostly American children first.

Marta Sanchez of Mebane is a research scientist at the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University.

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