Bring immigrants out of the shadows

Last Friday, President Obama courageously announced that it would no longer be the policy of the United States to deport young illegal immigrants who came to this country as children years ago through no fault of their own. This announcement brings some measure of justice to a deeply dysfunctional immigration system.

The president’s actions remind me of the letter Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent from a Birmingham jail in 1963, when he wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When I think of the immigration challenges facing our nation, I often think of these words and the lesser-known words that follow: 

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“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.”

The president recognizes that these young, undocumented students, as with so many immigrants, are already interwoven into the fabric of American life. These are not outsiders. They are our neighbors, our employees, our classmates and our veterans. It is not only inhumane but impractical to think we can simply deport our way to a solution.

Those who oppose the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act and the president’s actions countenance an America where vast numbers live in the shadows, a permanent underclass of outsiders. Or they advocate laws that would make life in America so miserable for millions that they will just pack up and leave. They oppose efforts to reasonably deal with our immigration challenges, arguing instead for strict adherence to “the rule of law.”

But we need to face facts. Our laws have been broken for decades, failing to meet the needs of American families and entire industries, particularly agriculture. As Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, put it two year ago at a House Judiciary ommittee hearing: “We have sent at best a mixed message to undocumented workers for more than two decades. At the border, we have had two signs posted: ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘Help Wanted.’ ”

We need an immigration system that reflects the reality on the ground. It is time to bring those who have paid taxes and committed no crimes out of the shadows. It is time to ensure that undocumented workers are no longer exploited by unscrupulous employers. It is time to make sure that the laws we are so vigorously enforcing are designed to help move this country’s economy forward, not hold it back. The American people deserve a practical solution to the problem. And poll after poll shows that the overwhelming majority believe the answer lies in a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. 

But why does an issue where there is a clear path forward appear to be intractable?

It’s small-minded thinking by those who believe that stoking nativist fears will lead to a short-term electoral advantage.

We have a presumptive Republican presidential nominee who not only has vowed to veto the DREAM Act but has called the cruel Arizona immigration law a model for the country. We have state legislators who appeal to the lowest common denominator and would make criminals out of immigrants whose only offense is a desire to work for a better life for themselves and their families.

I reject this.

The anger and fear that has prevented us from rationalizing our immigration policy might be understandable; there is plenty of blame to go around. But those who aggravate this fear by scapegoating immigrants abdicate leadership. They ascribe to what Dr. King called
the “ ‘outside agitator’ idea.”

The challenge posed by our broken immigration system requires an appeal to the better angels of our nature. To guide us, we have Dr. King’s enduring example of leadership, courage and inspiration. And like the civil-rights movement, the journey may be long and the path uneven, but the result will be a stronger and more just America.

Conyers is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

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