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Leaders' Blog

Reflections on Immigration

By July 1, 2021September 7th, 2021No Comments

By Dr. Joseph Chuman, Leader

We are living in tumultuous times. Among our other ills, we are in a period of reckoning with America’s history of immigration and a long-burning immigration crisis that is a major political flash point. The United States prides itself on being “a nation of immigrants” and a beacon of freedom, warmly welcoming the oppressed from nations around the world. But that self-congratulatory promotion of our country as a bastion of benevolent immigration is, in great measure, mythology, a self-serving ideology, national narcissism writ large.

We are a nation of immigrants. Except for Native Americans, our ancestors came from elsewhere. Many of the ancestors of Blacks came here in chains, but much of our immigrant history has been benign. There is much truth to the notion that our diverse makeup is a source of strength.

For generations, the American Dream was a reality and remains a reason many people worldwide still want to come here. But our immigration history has a darker side, and the current problems have awakened many to that difficult reality. We can point to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first exclusionary legislation based on race. The 1924 Immigration Act instituted harsh quotas. Whom we accept as refugees should be based on humanitarian, not political criteria. Too often they’ve been political: flee Communist Cuba and we will roll out the red carpet, escape Haiti by boat and we will intercept you and turn you back.

Most pronounced has been the insurgent nativism that emerged after each wave of immigration. People who are here quickly forget where their grandparents came from. In the early 1900s the Ku Klux Klan was a grassroots organization of upward of 3 million members. At the top of their hate list were Blacks; next were Catholics, primarily Italian and Irish immigrants.

We are living though such a period of nativism and anti-immigrant backlash this very ugly moment, replete with xenophobia. Donald Trump used the most powerful office in the land to stoke that hatred in base and vile terms. But he was fanning flames long present.

The immigration system badly needs massive reform. We need to find ways to integrate 11 million undocumented immigrants here now without aggravating unfairness for those who seek to enter by prescribed means. Most dramatic are those fleeing conditions in Latin countries, primarily Central America, and amassing at the southern border. These include unaccompanied minors.

Immigrants fall into two categories that are often conflated and misunderstood. One is the undocumented immigrants who illegally came across the border or overstayed their visas. They are summarily returned to Mexico or housed in detention centers.

For generations, the American Dream was a reality and remains a reason many people worldwide still want to come here. But our immigration history has a darker side…

In the second category are those seeking asylum. Each nation is sovereign to determine its own immigration policies, but asylum is a legal right protected by federal and international human rights law to which the United States in principle is beholden. Being here as an undocumented immigrant is a civil matter, not a criminal offense.

The protections for asylum seekers are strong. If one is fleeing persecution, one is permitted to cross the border and request asylum from an immigration official. In the past, that person was briefly detained, then released into the community to await an asylum hearing. For the past several decades detention has been almost universal, sometimes for years before one’s day in immigration court.

Detention should not equate with incarceration, but the two circumstances are virtually indistinguishable. Conditions in many federal detention centers veer from grim to atrocious. In many cases the federal government, through immigration services (ICE), contracts with counties to house detainees in local jails.

Violating federal law and our international treaty agreements, Donald Trump virtually destroyed the asylum process. He forced asylum seekers to remain in Mexico, kept many out using a statute barring entry for health reasons, summarily deported many with no legal redress, and notoriously separated children from their parents.

Biden has pledged immigration reform, starting with forbidding family separation, and attempting to move unaccompanied minors to family members or sponsors in the U.S. who will care for them until their cases are resolved. He abolished Trump’s policy of keeping asylum seekers in Mexico where they were subject to danger.

The most politically fraught issue will probably center around the disposition of the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here, which will necessitate legislation from a dreadfully polarized and dysfunctional Congress. Dealing with those coming to our borders requires different approaches and high costs. The number of those waiting for asylum hearings is overwhelming. Many more immigration judges will have to be trained and assigned. Temporary shelters will need to be built at the border. Private service agencies will have to be recruited to deal with immigrants in a more humane manner.

Most of those amassing at the border are fleeing conditions in Central America, specifically Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—desperately poor countries with corrupt governments, countries ridden with violence perpetrated by narco-trafficking gangs, horrors that would be mitigated if our country did not have an insatiable need for drugs and was not the world’s greatest producer of guns. In recent decades, the United States has aided in destabilizing these countries. In the 1980s, we shamefully supported a retinue of cruel military dictators in Salvador and Guatemala who served our interests while perpetrating unspeakable violence against their own people.

If we wish to reduce the number of people fleeing to our border, we need to install enlightened policies to assist these nations in providing a promising and secure future for their people. If we wish to reduce flight, we need to reduce the conditions that cause it. It is a tall and difficult order. But I don’t see any other way.

Joseph Chuman

Dr. Joseph Chuman is a Leader at Ethical NYC.

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