Commentary: Piecemeal approach to immigration reform won't work

Facing an ABC-TV news camera in Arizona just after pieces of that state's highly publicized immigration law were blocked, a young woman who supports the measure said immigrants were taking jobs away from legal citizens.

"They come into our country, and they accept $2 an hour or sometimes even less," she said. "So that takes away the opportunity for an American to have that job."

Hers is one of the key objections to illegal immigration. Other objections are that there will be a rise in crime rates and that allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. is simply rewarding illegal behavior.

The media have reported a noticeable exodus of people from Arizona since the law passed this spring. The media have also reported a large number of protests throughout the nation against that measure.

With all the political posturing, however, we sometimes forget there are human beings involved. And we definitely forget that laws created in individual states cannot trump federal mandates. That's why key pieces of the Arizona law were blocked.

"I think the decision is correct," said Josh Santana, president of the Lexington Hispanic Association. "You just can't have a patchwork of laws throughout the nation. It points out the need for the federal government to step up. But it is such a divisive issue, the (Democratic and Republican) parties are unable to meet in the middle somewhere. There is a desperate need of comprehensive immigration reform."

While documented and undocumented immigrants in Arizona are on edge, Andrés Cruz, owner and editor of La Voz de Kentucky, Lexington's English and Spanish bilingual newspaper, said the panic has not reached the commonwealth's borders. But he has seen some subtle changes.

When Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul suggested children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants shouldn't automatically be granted citizenship, as the Constitution dictates, "that has created a sense of rejection and fear," Cruz said. "I think people need to understand these laws can be punitive but don't attack the real problem."

The real problem is that businesses need the labor force and that many of the workers come here to be with family. No laws will trump that core family value of providing for and being with family, Cruz said.

And the recession has reduced the number of undocumented immigrants who cross our borders as well as a less publicized crackdown by the Obama administration.

The Washington Post reported that about 400,000 people will be deported this fiscal year and that the number of businesses being audited for illegally hiring undocumented workers has quadrupled.

The peak of immigration to Lexington, Cruz said, was from 2004 to 2006, during the construction boom. And, he said, there is no link between native unemployment and immigration.

"We have 2.8 percent Latino and Hispanic population in Kentucky, but unemployment is 10.7 percent."

Cori Hash, directing attorney at Maxwell Street Clinic, a program that provides legal assistance to immigrants, refugees and their families, said the problem with the Arizona law, as well as laws that have been proposed in other states including Kentucky, is we don't really understand exactly what immigration entails.

"There is a knowledge gap," she said. "How are we going to learn about immigration, and do we know enough to make good law?

"We kind of lost our way and focused our concerns on blame when we should be focusing on the root of the problem," Hash said.

The most troubling part of the Arizona law, before it was blocked, was having to prove citizenship. With that provision in place, "we all can be detained until our citizenship status can be verified," she said.

Plus, the verification process would be placed on the shoulders of law enforcement officers who are not experts in that area, diverting their attention from other issues.

No matter how diligent the process might start out, we all know that eventually the people who will feel the greatest impact are Latinos and Hispanics. Not German immigrants, Irish immigrants or Russian immigrants who may have overstayed their visas.

"Which leads to the question is this really about immigration or is this about race?" Hash said.

Good laws won't be made until we can separate those two issues. We need comprehensive immigration reform, not piecemeal attempts to keep a certain group of people in check. Those attempts failed morally and miserably with Native Americans and blacks.

It's the difference between using a bullet and buckshot. They both will hit the target, but the first shows greater knowledge and expertise.