Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Better Way on Immigration


By Chris Liu-Beers

As the legislature returns to Raleigh, all eyes will be on the budget with its projected shortfall of over $3 billion. But observers expect a slew of bills on other issues as well, including one that always attracts controversy: immigration.

No doubt it will be tempting for some lawmakers to try to implement Arizona’s “papers, please” immigration law here in North Carolina. But as we have already learned from Arizona, this approach is shortsighted and misguided.

Anti-immigrant forces want to ban undocumented immigrant families from renting apartments or sending their kids to school. These kinds of policies are unworkable and inconsistent with our values.

What does it mean for our communities when our neighbors are afraid to take their children to school or go to work? What would it mean for our schools to have families ripped apart on a daily basis and kids left behind when their parents are deported? What does it mean for our system of justice when people are serving jail time and prison sentences because they seek a better life and are willing to work hard in the sun to achieve it?

While people are understandably frustrated over the failure of the federal government to fix our broken immigration system, creating a patchwork of potentially unconstitutional, costly and confusing laws is not an answer. If we follow Arizona on immigration, we’re facing log jams in the court systems, overworked prosecutors and public defenders wasting their time, and police distracted from pursuing true criminals.

Instead of pouring billions of dollars into rounding up hardworking immigrant families, we need to fix our system so that immigrants who came here to work, pay taxes and learn English can become legal and contribute fully.

Some places, unlike Arizona, have quietly been moving forward with positive, integrative approaches to new immigrants in their communities. They recognize the long-term benefits gained from having thriving immigrant communities that aren’t forced into the shadows of society.

I’m proud that the city of Durham has been a leader in some of these positive efforts. For example, while the city has implemented the controversial 287(g) program (which essentially deputizes local police to enforce federal immigration law), it has been careful to target primarily serious criminal offenders.

Chief Lopez and other city leaders have consistently communicated with Latino constituents and built trusting relationships among Durham’s immigrant communities.

Durham has not only rejected an Arizona-style crackdown on immigrants -- the City Council called for a boycott of Arizona -- it has also worked to improve civic participation and immigrant integration into mainstream society. This approach improves public safety, creates jobs and helps local economies.

For example, the Durham City Council recently voted to recognize the Mexican government’s matricula consular as a valid form of identification. At that meeting, Chief Lopez stated that “The significance is to garner trust from the [Latino] community.” Elsewhere in Durham, the Latino Community Credit Union has become nationally recognized for its work in realizing the business potential of local Hispanic entrepreneurs.

Humane immigration politics are smart politics in the long-term. Political strategists from David Axelrod to Karl Rove agree that Arizona’s approach on immigration is misguided. n an increasingly diverse nation, there is no long-term political future for politicians pushing Arizona copycat laws. Elected officials who lead with intelligent, humane policies on immigration will both build a stronger economy in North Carolina and win politically over the long haul.

Immigrants -- both documented and those without status -- are already a vital part of the fabric of our society. They are contributing members of our communities; they are our neighbors, classmates, coworkers and friends. We need to make sure they can participate fully in our society and contribute fully to our economy -- through work, in school, for public safety.

Ultimately, we need national comprehensive immigration reform to ensure fairness and accountability in the labor market. Only comprehensive reform will create a level playing field for workers and employers, increase pay for low-wage workers, punish unscrupulous employers who undercut their honest competitors, and increase tax compliance and revenues.

Until Congress enacts such reforms, there are a range of positive state and local policies that can improve the lives of immigrants and raise living standards and public safety for everyone, native and immigrant alike. It’s time for North Carolina to step in the right direction.
Liu-Beers is program associate for the North Carolina Council of Churches.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 2/11