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Guest Editorial

Congress's misguided immigration reform

BY SHANKAR NARAYAN & ROWENA PINEDA

Imagine a Washington state resident named Gloria. She lives in the suburbs, drives a Honda, and has a steady, if low-wage, job. Gloria pays taxes and social security, works long hours, and worries about much the same things many people might-paying her mortgage and keeping her high-school-age son out of trouble.

But because Gloria came to the U.S. from Mexico in search of a better life for her son, one critical difference separates her from many of her suburban neighbors-she is undocumented. And for that reason, she may soon become a victim of Congress's misguided efforts at immigration reform.

Contrary to popular belief, undocumented immigrants don't live "in the shadows," They build homes, take care of their children, attend places of worship, work in stores and hospitals, and go to parent-teacher association meetings. The vast majority are law-abiding. They are our neighbors, friends, and community members and contribute to Washington's economy, supporting industries like construction, hospitality and agriculture.

Of course, listening to the hyperbole that characterizes our national conversation about immigration, it's hard to remember that immigrants are even human beings, let alone contributing members of our communities. Anti-immigration groups blame immigrants for everything from the problems facing our health care system, to ruptures in our social fabric, to terrorism. But this kind of rhetoric makes a poor basis for sound policy and leads to headline-grabbing crackdowns rather than real, comprehensive reform.

Take the latest immigration "solution," passed recently by a deeply divided House. If it were to become law, the proposal would mandate criminal penalties for undocumented immigrants, even those fleeing repressive regimes or reuniting with their families. In many cases, it would criminalize contact-even innocent contact-with an undocumented person. And it would close the courtroom doors to immigrants-legal or undocumented-seeking review of most immigration decisions, when access to a judge is something we expect even for a traffic violation. So under this proposal, Gloria would be subject to jail time without recourse to the judicial system-all for wanting her son to have it better than she did.

Although touted as real reform, this proposal is more of the same old, tired, enforcement-based approach that forms the basis of our current, broken system. With our detention centers overflowing and job-seekers continuing to cross the border, we've seen that the enforcement approach is doomed to failure. Yet, there's nothing in this proposal that goes beyond enforcement to address the role of our trade and economic policy in spurring migration, or the dependence of many sectors of our economy on migrant labor. By focusing enforcement efforts on job-seekers, the proposal does nothing for national security, either.

If we are to have a real discussion about immigration, we need to take a step back and consider the important questions: Why do people migrate to the United States? What role do immigrants play in this country? And how do we create an immigration policy that addresses our current reality and lives up to the values we proclaim as a nation?

The truth is that immigrants like Gloria play essential social and economic roles in our communities. The millions of undocumented people living in the U.S. today cannot simply be "sent home." To suggest otherwise is to ignore the hard lessons of our past failed enforcement efforts.

Any real immigration solution must provide a safe and orderly process for them to gain legal status. A real solution must also reunite families divided by borders-we need to cut through the backlogs that have left our current system hamstrung.

Finally, our immigration system should reflect our values by ensuring that everyone living in our country-regardless of immigration status-has the same labor protections and human rights that are the real basis of America's freedom.

We are at a crossroads in the immigration debate. We could surrender to the unsound notion that insists in ever-harsher tones that people like Gloria are the root of all our ills, and that we could somehow painlessly send them all home. Or, we can choose real immigration reform that reflects both our values and our economic reality.

We must recognize that Gloria and other immigrants are an integral part of Washington's communities, support vital industries and add to the diversity of America's rich fabric.

Shankar Narayan is the policy director at Hate Free Zone Washington. Rowena Pineda is a member of Washington Citizen Action, a statewide, multi-issue coalition and grassroots organization dedicated to organizing on economic justice issues.

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