I’m Done with Comprehensive: How About Humane Immigration Reform?

As I’ve watched the latest comprehensive immigration reform debate play out in Congress and in the media, I’ve grown more disenchanted by what I’ve heard. Or, more to the point, what I haven’t heard, and what that means for activists and allies. This essay is an attempt to work through some of what’s missing in our national discourse, and get at how we – advocates, activists, allies, and communities – can develop something better.


There are two basic levels on which the debate over immigration reform operates: policy and paradigm. The level of policy is more or less where we’ve confined our debates in Congress and in public since the early 20th century, and it seeks to answer a valid question: what should the United States’ reaction be to people who migrate to this country?

At the same time, though, there’s a debate we’ve steadfastly avoided having, by ignoring the underlying philosophical question: what are the social, political, and economic circumstances which bring immigrants to the United States, and in what ways have our policies driven immigration?[1]

My hope for immigration reform is a paradigm shift. I don’t want to give the appearance of being too optimistic, mind you: I have precisely zero faith in the ability of Congress to push this debate in a different direction. My hope and my goal is that as communities, advocates, and allies we can move away from a myopic focus on effects, and move to an honest discussion of root causes.

That’s not to say that I don’t have policy goals, which are really low-hanging fruit which have been analyzed in depth elsewhere: quick and easy legalization for all folks who are currently undocumented (without any of the double taxation, travel restrictions, and lack of access to the social safety net currently being hailed in Washington as “sensible” reforms), a humane reform of our agricultural and guest-worker programs to give everyone a fair shot at citizenship, and a concerted look at how we can streamline the asylum and refugee processes.

But the policies we adopt are ultimately the concrete reflection of our principles, given the force of law. The principles which we’ve entrenched in the immigration system of today are logically and morally tortured, and it’s time to take a different tack.

The Myth of Agency, root causes, and symptomatic treatment

One of the foundations on which our immigration system is built could be called the Myth of Agency. It’s the notion that immigrants actively and affirmatively choose to come to the United States, absent any external influence. We need to deconstruct and move away from the myth: although every immigrant may at some point make a conscious decision to migrate to the United States, those decisions are made at the intersection of a dizzying array of power relations (e.g. race, class, ethnicity, history, political reality, the exigencies of war, famine, just to name a few), which we can’t in good faith ignore. Unless we work to understand the root causes of immigration, we are destined to have this debate every five or ten years in perpetuity.

Let’s look at a clear example, the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on Mexican immigration to the US. First, a general comment: free trade agreements have certainly boosted profits for corporations which have gained access to new markets. Unfortunately, they’ve done nothing to boost our own economy, and have wreaked havoc on labor, employment, and economic growth worldwide. The profit-at-all-costs mentality is effectively an economic suicide pact, with an empirically demonstrable effect on international migration.

After NAFTA went into effect in 1994, the sudden elimination of barriers to imports and exports of American produce was devastating to Mexican agriculture. Undersold by agricultural conglomerates, local farmers were effectively priced out of their own markets, and agricultural unemployment in Mexico skyrocketed. With a lack of available work, thousands of folks migrated north in search of some semblance of stability and security for their families and communities.[2] The public and political narrative, though, developed as if Mexico’s rural farming communities suddenly decided to uproot their lives and migrate to the United States, without any kind of pressure pushing or pulling them.

Criminalization and the Era of Detentions

Unfortunately, a discussion of the root causes of immigration hasn’t made its way into the political sphere, and our elected officials and public personalities have focused, nationally and state-by-state – as well as in the current debate over comprehensive immigration reform – on so-called “enforcement,” which is often a euphemism for the wholesale criminalization of immigrants. Focusing on enforcement is both short-sighted and dehumanizing. It effectively blames immigrants for coming to the United States and works to make the country as inhospitable as possible for those who do migrate here.

From E-Verify & ICE raids to a border strategy which forces immigrants into more dangerous crossings, the enforcement approach ignores the United States’ complicity in creating the conditions for migration to this country, and quietly avoids recognizing our government’s history of fostering war, famine, instability, and economic collapse all over the world. Our government has created the conditions for folks to immigrate to the United States, and then has the gall to blame those immigrants for coming here.

It’s not just federal action which pushes enforcement at all costs. The American Legislative Exchange Council has been enormously successful in pushing “Arizona-style” laws all over the country, and while the Supreme Court may have dismantled some of the more draconian provisions, “Show Me Your Papers” is still in full force in many states. Under Secure Communities and 287(g) agreements, local law enforcement has been deputized to execute immigration laws. As has been seen all over the country, this collaboration creates the perfect conditions for racial, ethnic, and religious profiling, and has eroded communities’ trust in law enforcement.

And let me be very clear that the Era of Detentions isn’t just a Republican phenomenon. Barack Obama ran in part on the promise of immigration reform and a change from Bush-era detention policies; in reality, his administration has deported more people in four years than any previous president, kicking more than one million people out of the United States, while ramping up every enforcement program designed under Bush. I’d offer that he may be the worst president we’ve had on immigration issues since Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.


What’s the solution, and where do we start? We have to redesign our immigration system to focus on people. Not people as abstract units of labor power or as targets for enforcement, but as human beings. Call it Humane Immigration Reform: a package of policies which acknowledges and works to correct the underlying causes of immigration to the United States, while working to help folks who immigrate to the US to thrive here. There are dozens of different directions we could go, but here are some easily-identifiable targets:

  • Immediately abolish free trade agreements to which the US is a signatory (to effect the biggest impact, we can start with NAFTA and CAFTA-DR). The impact of “free trade” on local economies and immigration waves has been analyzed at length by literally hundreds of scholars, and the so-called benefits don’t justify the harms.
  • Provide an easy, quick pathway to regularization and citizenship for all folks who are currently undocumented. Making the system difficult, expensive, or by placing long time periods on eligibility is prima facie punitive, and accomplishes no rational, logical, or moral objective.
  • Abolish the immigration quota system, both for countries and visa categories. In our current system, we impose arbitrary caps on who can get visas, and from where. To give an example, we issue 10,000 U visas a year to undocumented victims of sexual or domestic violence; demand far outpaces supply, and thousands every year are denied a lifeline out of violence. For countries which send a high number of folks to the US, country-based quotes are totally inadequate, as well.
  • Streamline the administrative system underpinning immigration by hiring more judges, more attorneys, and more staff, to make the process itself quicker, easier, and less expensive. The backlog of visa applications and the relative difficulty in being admitted to the United States is symptomatic of a tremendously inefficient, understaffed system. We should also work to increase transparency in the immigration courts, which have historically operated in a poorly-overseen vacuum.
  • Dismantle all collaboration policies between local law enforcement and Immigration & Customs Enforcement, and work to end profiling in law enforcement.
  • End the privatization of immigration detentions. Corrections Corporation of America, often a villain in the criminal justice arena, has made quite a bit of money operating immigration detention facilities, which creates a perverse incentive for more detentions..
  • Give all immigrants & refugees access to the social safety net, education, and employment opportunities. Again, to deny immigrants access to scholarships, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, nutrition assistance, Medicaid, etc. is simply punitive, and rejects the reality that these folks are part of our social contract (if not through living here and contributing to our communities, then perhaps by paying billions per year in taxes).

And to truly achieve better, more humane principles, we have to ensure that the work of reforming immigration is led by the folks most impacted. The most disastrous reality of the immigration debate is that, at virtually every level, immigrants & refugees are treated not as people, but as labor and/or political commodities. Even essays like this one run the risk of talking around, over, or for immigrants & refugees, all the while treating people and communities as abstracts. I’ve got a soft spot for white citizen allies – I am one, after all – but we’ve got to take a supportive role on immigration issues: we’re ultimately not affected by the work we do.

I’m concerned that, as we get farther down the path to “comprehensive” reform over the next year, we’ll be forced to be defensive and responsive. Instead of working to affirmatively further alternative proposals for immigration reform, we’re forced to respond to whatever it is that Congress is entertaining themselves with for the moment. It’s great political theater – and certainly generates a flood of campaign contributions from every angle – but it doesn’t do a lot for our communities.

We can do better.

[1] This question may sound like I believe that we should reduce or eliminate immigration, which is absolutely not the case.

[2] There’s an incredible wealth of literature focusing on free trade agreements’ impacts on local agriculture. For two well-analyzed sources, I recommend Acevedo & Espenshade’s prescient “Implications of a North American Free Trade Agreement for Mexican Migration into the United States,” Population and Development Review 18, no. 4 (1992), and McCarty’s “The Impact of NAFTA on Rural Children & Families in Mexico,” Journal of Public Child Welfare 1, no. 4 (2007).

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