When I gave speeches about the need for immigration reform, I used to talk about how we were revisiting a lot of the same issues that plagued the nation in the early 1980s: the need for legalization for undocumented immigrants working in the country, the toll that family separation takes on our communities, and the insecurity born of a system showing obvious signs of strain. I used the point to reinforce the need to really fix the nation’s immigration system, so that we wouldn’t have to revisit these same debates and fears and tragedies every couple of decades.
I should have gone a bit farther back in history.
When I read The Woman Behind the New Deal last summer, there were several passages about Frances Perkins’ work overseeing the immigration department, which then fell under the Department of Labor (kind of interesting, really, given how we continue to view immigrants as valuable chiefly/solely for their labor contributions, but subsequently moved the INS to the Department of Justice (connected to our criminalization of immigrants) and then to Homeland Security (consistent with our conflation of migration and terrorism). My guess is that we’re not moving ICE to DHHS any time soon!)
What I found most stunning was her statement to Congress when she was questioned about failures to deport some foreigners viewed by Congress as possible communists (and, therefore, deportable):
“The problems which the immigration laws present are serious, intricate and of the highest public importance. They have a peculiar significance to the future of our country, for it is incumbent upon those who administer the immigration laws to aim at two important goals: First, to preserve this country, its institutions and ideals, from foreign forces which present a clear and present danger to the continuance of our way of living; and second, to show those aliens who together with their families are soon to become our fellow citizens that American institutions operate without fear or favor, in a spirit of fair-play, and with a desire to do justice to the stranger within our gates, as well as to the native born.” (p. 281)
I’d stress the themes of family reunification and workers’ rights and civil liberties a bit more explicitly than she did but, in all, it’s almost eerie how easily this statement could have been made 70 years later. We still wrestle with immigration policy as a core question related to American identity: who gets to be “one of us”? And what does that decision say about the nation we present ourselves to be?
Unfortunately, it seems that the prejudices and misperceptions about immigrants and their contributions to this country have not changed much in the past seven decades, either:
“Many refused to believe government statistics, and they circulated reports alleging that 1 million foreign sailors jumped ship in the United States each year, or that five hundred thousand Mexicans strolled across the border in the previous decade. In her annual report in 1935, Frances blasted these accounts as “fantastic exaggerations”” (p. 191). I can picture her today, decrying those horrible “undocumented immigrants are stealing Social Security” email forwards that periodically get sent to me for debunking.
So, here we are, generations later, still fighting the same struggles for basic decency, due process, and equal opportunity for those who happened not to share our good fortune of being born in the United States of America.
And, here we are, as far away from an upcoming congressional election as we’re going to get, staring at two years to get comprehensive immigration reform done in this Congress.
We’ve got to make it happen–for the families torn apart, for the bodies strewn in the desert, for the workers (immigrant and not) whose wages and bargaining position are undercut by the existence of so many who have so few rights, for the security we all deserve in knowing who’s in this country and allowing law enforcement to focus on those who truly mean us harm, and for the still-salvageable American Dream, which has never been limited just for those who’ve always been here.
And we’ve got to make it happen because, otherwise, we could still be making the same case, and combating the same myths, in 70 more years. Except that I’m not sure we can withstand it.
Call your members of Congress today. Tell them (you have three–call all three!) that now is the time. Do it for those who long to call America home, for those who long have but are still afraid to come out of the shadows, for those who fear change but know that this isn’t what welcoming the stranger looks like. Do it for social work, which can’t afford to sit out this important struggle for social justice and the definition of what our nation will mean. And, do it for Frances.