What’s the Value of Keeping Undocumented Youth in the Shadows?

Youth Protesting for the Right to be American

The real life psychological ramifications of young immigrants struggling with their unauthorized status are often glossed over in the larger immigration debate. In a recent journal article, Learning to Be Illegal: Undocumented Youth and Shifting Legal Contexts in the Transition to Adulthood, University of Chicago professor Roberto G. Gonzales uses 150 interviews with young Latino adults to examine how unauthorized youth deal with their legal status as they come of age. Gonzales finds that as unauthorized immigrant children transition into adulthood, many “learn to be illegal,” figuring out how to exist in a society that was once welcoming, but now prohibits their participation.

Under U.S. law, all children have the legal right to a K-12 education, regardless of their immigration status. After graduation, however, unauthorized youth quickly learn that they cannot legally work, vote, receive financial aid for college or drive in most states. In addition, they have the added fear of deportation. Throughout his research, Gonzales found that unauthorized youth “uniformly noted a jolting shift at around age 16, when they attempted to move through rites of passage associated with their age…as respondents tried to take these steps into adult life, they were blocked by their lack of a Social Security number.” One student noted:

I never actually felt like I wasn’t born here. Because when I came I was like 10 and a half. I went to school. I learned the language. I first felt like I was really out of place when I tried to get a job. I didn’t have a Social Security number. Well, I didn’t even know what it meant. You know Social Security, legal, illegal. I didn’t even know what that was.

Gonzales found that nearly 60 percent of the unauthorized youth interviewed discovered they were unauthorized when applying for college. Most of those who did not attend college discovered their immigration status when attempting to work. Sadly, the end result for both groups was universal disappointment—their chances of finding a good job or attending an esteemed university severely diminished by their immigration status as were their chances of contributing to society.

These youth, however, have not given up on pursuing their educational aspirations. Many are working on the passage of federal legislation known as the DREAM Act, legislation which would solve many of the issues facing these youngsters. The DREAM act would allow unauthorized youth to eventually gain citizenship by going to college or joining the military after high school. While passage of the DREAM Act is currently an unlikely political reality, the Obama Administration has the ability defer the deportations of certain unauthorized youth who would likely have qualified for the DREAM Act.

So what can we do about America’s unauthorized youth? While Congress remains gridlocked on legislation that would enable unauthorized youth to fully participate in society, Gonazles asks the larger question—what is lost when we keep unauthorized youth—many of whom will remain in the U.S., regardless of their status—in the shadows?

Whether they become a disenfranchised underclass or contributing members to our society, their fate rests largely in the hands of the state.

We must ask ourselves if it is good for the health and wealth of this country to keep such a large number of U.S.-raised young adults in the shadows. We must ask what is lost when they learn to be illegal.

Sadly, the answer to that question is “too much.” While Congress continues to play politics with reform efforts, America loses out on the raw potential these unauthorized youth bring to the table.

Photo by j valas images.

DHS Terminates Secure Communities Agreements with States, Continues to Implement Program

Ripping up an Agreement

Late Friday afternoon, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provoked outrage from immigration groups when it announced the termination of Secure Communities Memorandum of Agreements (MOAs) with state and local governments. DHS initially entered into MOAs with state officials as a way to encourage voluntary participation in Secure Communities, an enforcement program which runs the fingerprints of individuals booked in local jails through federal databases. Last October, however, following attempts by local jurisdictions to terminate their MOAs, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that Secure Communities was not a voluntary program after all. DHS’s latest about-face this week has only further angered immigration activists, many of whom are calling on DHS to end the program.

Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), John Morton, issued a letter Friday to 40 local officials who previously signed up Secure Communities announcing the termination of their MOAs. According to ICE, this announcement was meant to clear up any confusion over whether the MOAs gave localities a choice in participating in the program.

In a letter to Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware on Friday, Mr. Morton said that his agency was canceling the agreements because it had determined that they were “not required to activate or operate Secure Communities.”

“We are going to bring to an end any questions about whether or not we are requiring any state involvement in immigration enforcement,” a senior official from Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in an interview on Friday.

To date, governors in Massachusetts, New York and Illinois have tried, without success, to terminate their MOAs, citing the program’s failure to target serious criminals. Law enforcement leaders and city officials across the U.S. have also openly criticized the program for casting too wide a net and for eroding trust between police and community members. And the criticism doesn’t stop there.

California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) has called for an investigation into the actions of federal immigration officials whom she believes initially lied about whether states and localities had the right to opt-out of the program. DHS plans to make Secure Communities, which is currently activated in 1,508 jurisdictions in 44 states, active in every state by 2013.

Immigration advocacy groups are now outraged over DHS’s announcement on Friday, charging that the government has consistently dismissed the concerns of community, ensnared immigrants in a “virtual dragnet” and put them in a “deportation pipeline.” Other groups, like Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), called DHS “just plain wrong”:

“This program has contributed to the record number of detentions and deportations in 2010 that failed to take into account whether a person was innocent or guilty, and encourages racial profiling,” said FIRM spokesperson Marissa Graciosa. “This program has created fear within immigrant communities that any contact with police could lead to deportation.  And to now say the program is mandatory is just plain wrong.”

While immigration groups continue to express their anger and distrust over DHS’s controversial Secure Communities program, one thing remains clear: when it comes to immigration enforcement, DHS has a long way to go to prove to immigration advocates that it can be trusted. While that should concern DHS officials, Friday’s actions only add to the agency’s problems with state and local law enforcement officials—officials who were once treated as partners but are now being told that they have no say in whether or when Secure Communities comes to their town.

Photo by pzAxe.

Immigration Restrictionists Take SB 1070 to Supreme Court

United States Supreme Court

More than a year after SB 1070 was initially enjoined in federal court, the immigration restrictionists behind Arizona’s misguided immigration law have brought their case to the Supreme Court. Proponents of SB 1070 are likely to hail the state’s petition, filed yesterday, as not only the first step toward reversing the injunction against the law’s most punitive provisions, but toward cementing states’ role as the primary enforcers of federal immigration law. While we won’t know whether the Justices will even hear the case until at least October, the petition already foretells an uphill climb for Paul Clement, the attorney representing Arizona and former Solicitor General under President Bush, to persuade the Court to overturn long established principles.

Even at the Supreme Court, supporters of SB 1070 continue to use fear-mongering and misleading policy assertions to justify passage of the law. For example, Arizona’s petition makes numerous and irrelevant references to “Mexican drug cartels” as well as news stories about National Park rangers carrying machine guns along the border. It also misleadingly states that “federal immigration laws are not adequately enforced,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that more than one million deportations have already occurred since President Obama took office—or six times more than were carried out during the entire Reagan Administration.

The petition is also riddled with weak and contradictory assertions. For example, Arizona defends the legality of SB 1070 by saying its provisions “consciously parallel” those in federal immigration law. Yet other sections maintain that local police have “inherent authority” to arrest individuals for lacking valid immigration status, notwithstanding federal laws establishing very few circumstances in which they may do so.

In addition to being contradictory, these arguments are wrong. Far from mirroring federal law, SB 1070 makes it a misdemeanor for undocumented immigrants to seek or perform work in the state, even though Congress has never imposed criminal sanctions on foreign nationals for working without authorization. Moreover, if state officers truly possessed inherent authority to investigate people on suspicion of unlawful presence, Congress would not have needed to create the 287(g) program, which, as the petition itself acknowledges, permits “state officials to perform the functions of federal immigration officers.”

Finally, the petition should put to rest claims that the Court’s recent decision in Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting—which upheld a separate law targeting employers of undocumented workers—makes the legality of SB 1070 a fait accompli. Tellingly, Arizona’s attorneys don’t discuss the case until the end of the petition, overlook significant distinctions between SB 1070 and the Legal Arizona Workers Act, and don’t even raise the possibility that the Ninth Circuit should hold a new round of arguments to consider its impact—as the Justices recently ordered in a challenge to a law from Hazleton, Pennsylvania, that the Third Circuit had previously found to be unconstitutional.

As we noted last month, SB 1070 and its various copycat laws have thus far been blocked by every federal court to consider their legality. Of course, the national anti-immigration groups that drafted the laws hoped all along that the issue would one day reach the Supreme Court. But if Arizona’s plea to the Supreme Court is any indication, the state may stand on shakier legal ground than the creators of SB 1070 initially believed.

Photo by kjd.

Time to Tackle Immigration Now that the Border is More “Secure” Than Ever, Report Says

United States fence at Mexican Border

The U.S.-Mexico border isn’t what it used to be. That is the over-arching theme of a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP), entitled Safer than Ever. The report describes the immense buildup in enforcement resources which has occurred along the U.S.-Mexico border since 1993. This buildup has created “a border where the vast majority of attempted entries are identified and a far larger percentage of entrants are apprehended than ever before.” Moreover, the increase in border enforcement has coincided with falling rates of violent crime along the border, and—over the past few years—a dramatic decline in the number of unauthorized immigrants attempting to cross into the United States. In other words, border enforcement is at an historic high and unauthorized immigration is at an historic low. This creates, as the CAP report puts it, “a unique opportunity” to redesign the broken U.S. immigration system and finally confront the fact that 11 million unauthorized immigrants now call the United States home.

The CAP report points out that enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border is worlds away from what it was in the early 1990s. For instance:

  • In just the five-year period from Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 to FY 2012, the number of Border Patrol agents has grown from 14,923 to 21,370. Most are stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • In Arizona, where most unauthorized border crossings now take place, there are 5,200 Border Patrol agents, more than 900 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, and more than 130 Air and Marine agents.
  • President Obama dispatched 1,200 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to help spot unauthorized border crossings.
  • There are now 300 miles of vehicle barriers and 350 miles of pedestrian fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • Arizona has roughly 60 remote surveillance systems deployed along its border with Mexico.

However, these heightened enforcement measures have been implemented in the absence of reforms that would fix the broken U.S. immigration system which spurs most unauthorized immigration. As a result, the border buildup has had two unintended consequences that have proven to be very deadly:

  • As migrants cross the border in more remote (and dangerous) locations, away from heavily fortified areas, more of them are dying. The Border Patrol puts the death toll at 4,375 between 1998 and 2009.
  • Since crossing the border is so difficult now, the services of a smuggler are essential in making the journey. This has driven up the fees that smugglers charge and the profits that they make. Profits are so high, in fact, that the Mexican drug cartels—infamous for their violence and ruthlessness—have gotten into the smuggling business and now dominate it.

These unintended consequences notwithstanding, the immense buildup of personnel and resources at the border has undoubtedly contributed to the large decline in apprehensions over the past few years. However, as the CAP report notes, that there are other factors which must be taken into account:

  • The severe economic downturn in the United States that began in 2008, which effectively dried up the job market that has long drawn unauthorized immigrants to this country.
  • The recent expansion of economic and educational opportunities in Mexico.
  • Demographic changes within Mexico; namely, a declining birth rate.

Regardless of which factors have played the biggest role in reducing unauthorized immigration to the United States from Mexico, the fact remains that unauthorized immigration is way down, border enforcement is way up, and now is the time to deal with the 11 million unauthorized immigrants who already live and work here.  The CAP report sensibly recommends a legalization program for the unauthorized, as well as more flexible limits on both employment-based and family-based immigration in the future—so that we don’t find ourselves in the same position again 20 years from now.

Photo by jonathan mcintosh.