The New Deportation Policy is Not Enough!

By Msgr. Juan Nicolau

McALLEN – Recent policy changes and debate over how best the U.S. should approach the issue of immigration have been limited in scope and technical in nature.
They reveal the difficulty in addressing an issue as far-reaching and complex as immigration, but also our failure as a country to think beyond immigration as a divisive political debate, to what it truly is: a humanitarian issue.
We must think hard about what recent policies have and have not accomplished, as well as the extent to which current debate and policies reflect the complexity and weight of an issue involving millions of lives; the waves created by the policies our country, states, and municipalities adopt will reverberate throughout our cities, schools, churches, and homes.
In August, the Obama administration announced a new deportation policy. The policy was based on a June 17 memo on prosecutorial discretion released by the Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), John Morton. Morton set forth factors to be considered in classifying cases that are already pending in immigration courts as either low or high priority.
The classification will allow ICE to shift limited resources from low priority cases involving veterans, pregnant women, and elders, among others, to high priority cases involving such individuals as those who pose a risk to national security, or serious felons. Exercising prosecutorial discretion based on these guidelines, ICE officials may administratively close cases deemed, “low priority.” Individuals whose cases are closed may apply for a work permit, but there are not yet guidelines for how an individual can apply, or who might receive work permits. Under the policy, officials will review the cases of 300,000 individuals in deportation proceedings.
The policy represents a step in the right direction, but it is a far cry from comprehensive immigration reform. As the policy applies only to those facing deportation, it will impact a narrow subset of the more than eleven million individuals currently in the U.S. without documentation. It provides few guarantees even to those individuals considered “low priority,” and its implications on the ground largely remain to be seen. The government has failed to develop the sweeping reform that has long eluded this country.
What federal, state, and local governments have managed to accomplish, is the creation of an American underclass. The federal DREAM Act would have created a path to citizenship for immigrants without documentation that came to the U.S. as children, met certain criteria, and have completed two years of either college or military service. Although the bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, it was stopped in the Senate.
Through the failure of the DREAM Act, and the introduction of stringent immigrant laws everywhere from Arizona to Alabama, federal and state governments have created a shadow population of individuals who are afraid to send their children to school, stand up for their labor rights, seek help in cases of domestic violence, and unable to pursue career dreams. Both government inaction and activism have produced the same result: the relegation of millions of members of our communities, many who have lived and worked in the U.S. for decades, to a class bereft of power.
As we look ahead to the 2012 presidential election, we must demand of our candidates, comprehensive immigration reform that begins to undermine this underclass. Candidates’ calls for double-fencing, an electrified border wall, and increased fence height are crude solutions to a complex issue, have a tenuous relationship to border security at best, and above all, are inhumane. Immigration reform must be comprehensive; it must address both the presence of immigrants in the U.S., and the root causes of immigration into this country. It must encompass all of those living here without documents, not simply a small fraction of this population. Above all, it must be crafted and carried out with a deep appreciation of the millions of human lives – parents, children, neighbors, students, employees – that are at stake.
Msgr. Juan Nicolau is chair of Valley Interfaith’s Immigration Action Team.