Commentary: U.S. has always struggled with immigration

Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. MCT

Fierce partisans on both sides of the immigration debate would do well to take a breather.

Some of the harshest measures of Arizona's controversial immigration law have been halted by an injunction. U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton forbade the state from requiring police officers to check the immigration status of those they stop or arrest. Thus begins what promises to be a protracted fight in federal courts.

Now if only people would stop spitting fire long enough to realize what this offers the nation: an opportunity to reflect on the problem and come up with a good solution. We can steer clear of the haphazard, reactionary and often prejudiced immigration policies of our nation's past. Let the skittish politicians finish the primary and general elections full of tough talk. Eventually, Congress will take up immigration reform in earnest. Once the pressures of campaign season are gone, perhaps decision-making on this vital matter will be guided by sobering reality.

We can get it right this time. To do so, we need to take into account not only the obvious need to police our borders, but also to address humanely the 10 million people here illegally, whom we have no realistic chance of deporting, and who play a large role in our economy. Speaking of which, any immigration reform must account for future labor needs, finding a way to meet them that is consistent with enforceable law.

Here's another reason we need to think carefully and come up with a comprehensive solution: Immigration policies and enforcement measures have a way of solving one problem while causing another. Arizona's immigration issues developed largely after crackdowns near San Diego pushed border crossings further east. One result: The morgue in Tucson is full of dead migrants as the summer's heat peaks.

Such horrific facts are part of the latest a chapter in our long, often less than stellar immigration history. How do we want that history to read to future generations? Skirmishes with nativist vigilantes, states and municipalities jumping onboard with draconian laws that won't pass constitutional muster, and ever more fear and exploitation as basic human rights are stripped from illegal immigrants?

Those who complain that the federal government is "doing nothing" are wrong. About 1,200 National Guard are headed to the southern border, joining the largest force of border agents ever stationed there. And deportations have reached levels seen under the Bush administration. And remember that illegal immigration peaked years ago, before the U.S. economy went sour.

We tend to deport newer immigrants in times of ethnic fear and economic hardship. The first to go were the Chinese after race riots in several Western states in the 1870s and 1880s. Later, Congress banned their entry altogether, a big "thank you" for their labor in building the railroads. During the Great Depression, the government rounded up not only Mexicans but U.S. citizens of Mexican descent and sent them packing.

The history of U.S. immigration policy records many instances of "getting tough," but rarely has the nation dealt effectively with its current immigration and labor challenges and also prepared for the future.

If the Arizona law goes to the U.S. Supreme Court, it may turn on this question: Is immigration solely a federal issue, or should states now have a role? In her injunction, Judge Bolton argued that the enforcement called for by the law would overwhelm federal immigration authorities. That, in my opinion, gets to the heart of the issue: Are we interested in sensible immigration reform that actually creates a better system, or are we interested in get-tough gestures that create more problems elsewhere?

The U.S.-Mexico border has no Statute of Liberty asking for "your tired, your poor," no Ellis Island for future generations to romanticize. And yet the migrants who traversed that border in the massive wave of the past few decades - they are now part of the United States. Like it or not, their children and now their children's children are reshaping the nation's demographics.

How do we want their chapter of U.S. history to read?


Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez@kcstar.com.

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