Hitting a Wall on Immigration

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By Thomas Wenski
Monday, October 20, 2008

As the presidential election heads into its final days, the issue of immigration remains largely unaddressed. It was not examined during the debates and is not high on either candidate's list of talking points. Congress has left the issue on the table. Sadly, this congressional reluctance has created a policy vacuum that has widened America's political divisions and left us with an inconsistent, ineffective and, in many cases, inhumane national policy.

The failure of comprehensive immigration reform last year, when Congress bowed to a vocal minority, unleashed a torrent of initiatives designed to demonstrate that the U.S. government can enforce our laws and secure our borders. In truth, intermittent work site raids, increased local law enforcement involvement and the creation of a wall along parts of our southern border, among other efforts, have done little to address the challenges presented by illegal immigration.

The most visible of these initiatives has been the work site raids in cities and towns across the nation. While these enforcement actions meet the political need to show government's law enforcement capabilities, they have had minimal effect on the number of undocumented workers in the United States.

Instead, they have caused dislocation and disruption in immigrant communities and victimized permanent U.S. residents and citizens, including children. The sweeping nature of these raids -- sometimes involving hundreds of law enforcement personnel with weapons -- has made it difficult for those arrested to secure basic due-process legal rights, including access to counsel. Some families have been split up indefinitely.

The involvement of local law enforcement in immigration enforcement, most prominently in Arizona and parts of the South, has greatly harmed the trust between immigrant neighborhoods and law enforcement and has diverted police from the work of apprehending criminals. The border wall and an unprecedented immigration enforcement buildup along our southern border have failed to deter new entrants to the United States and have discouraged immigrants from leaving.

Perhaps most damaging are the adverse, long-term effects these policies have had on immigrant communities. The overriding emotion many immigrants feel is fear. Not only do legal immigrants worry that a loved one may be swept away in a work site raid or after a knock at the door at home, they are fearful for their own futures -- and the futures of their children -- in the United States. This is not the way to encourage integration and responsible citizenship.

While some organizations that oppose immigration are delighted by this and hope such an atmosphere will lead to a mass exodus of illegal and legal immigrants, they are likely to be disappointed. What they do not acknowledge is that 70 percent of the undocumented have lived in this country for five years or longer and have no home to return to. These people identify themselves more as Americans than anything else and would rather live here in the shadows than take their U.S.-citizen children back to a place they do not know.

Opponents like to argue that our economy does not need the work of immigrants, now or in the future. Again, they are wrong. The Labor Department predicts that in the years ahead, despite the current economic slowdown, a shortage of low-skilled labor will exist in several important industries, for some beginning as early as 2010. As baby boomers begin retiring, immigrants will help support them by paying billions into the Social Security system.

To many elected officials, immigration has become the new "third rail" of American politics. Refraining from addressing this pressing domestic issue, however, will elevate tensions in states and localities, further alienate immigrants and their communities, and tacitly affirm the acceptance of a hidden and permanent underclass in our country.

The silver lining of this dark cloud upon our immigrant history is that it demonstrates that an enforcement-only approach to illegal immigration is ineffective and contrary to our national interests. A new administration and new Congress will be forced to act -- this time in a broad and balanced manner. Otherwise, the American people will be left pondering a wall and wondering why it is not working.

The writer is the Catholic bishop of Orlando and a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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