Academic journal article Social Justice

For an Immigration Policy Based on Human Rights

Academic journal article Social Justice

For an Immigration Policy Based on Human Rights

Article excerpt

From the introduction of the original Simpson-Mazzoli Bill in the mid-1970s, the key provisions of U.S. anti-immigrant legislation have been directed at undocumented immigrants. After a decade and one-half of repeated efforts, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 finally made employer sanctions, the heart of the act, part of federal law. This watershed action formalized and codified what has been national policy toward undocumented immigration - the creation of a special category of residents of the United States, who have significantly fewer rights than the population as a whole, cannot legally work or receive social benefits, and can be apprehended, incarcerated, and deported at any time.

The creation of this special category has had widespread ramifications. It has influenced the wage levels and vulnerability of immigrant labor itself. It has spawned other proposals for the denial of rights, such as the right to education or medical care. The original premise that undocumented immigrants have no right to work or earn a living has been broadened to include the denial of rights to most other basic elements of normal life, including the right to be a part of a community and live in the U.S. at all. It has led to the demonizing and dehumanizing of undocumented immigrants in public debate and political life.

In the years following the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, dozens of anti-immigrant bills were introduced, first into the California state legislature, and then into legislatures in other states (Bacon, 1993a). In 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187, an extreme measure to disqualify undocumented immigrants from education and health care services. Other states again took up similar measures.

Finally, in the spring of 1996 Congress debated and passed some of the most extensive and repressive immigration legislation in its history. A 187-like provision, an amendment introduced by Southern California Congress member Elton Gallegly to bar undocumented children from attending school, was included in the bill as it was originally passed by the House of Representatives (Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1996). Predictably, what started as an attack against the most vulnerable group of immigrants, the undocumented, was broadened into a generalized campaign to cut legal immigration quotas and disqualify even permanent legal residents from a wide variety of social benefits.

Given this onslaught, groups that have traditionally defended the rights of immigrants in the U.S. have become divided over the need and ability to defend the rights of the undocumented. Faced with a Republican majority in Congress and Republican candidates who seek to whip up widespread anti-immigrant hysteria throughout the country, some organizations now advocate the defense of legal immigration, but also support many measures directed against undocumented immigrants.

This has generally been the strategy of the Democratic Party. It takes its cue from President Clinton, who in his State of the Union speech in January 1996 declared that "we are still a nation of immigrants" and called on the country to "go forward as one America, one nation working together." Yet behind the rhetoric of inclusion, the president called for cracking down on the undocumented. He proposed increased border enforcement, stiffer sanctions to punish undocumented workers applying for jobs and employers who hire them, and signed an order barring businesses that hire undocumented workers from receiving federal contracts.(1)

California Democratic Representative Howard Berman subsequently called the House's passage of a bill that had been stripped of many measures directed against legal immigrants a victory of hope over fear (Ibid.). Yet the bill also contained an amendment that would deny undocumented children the right to attend school and force schoolteachers to turn them in to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for deportation. …

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