When Does the Failure to Act Become a Moral Issue?

Only a handful of issues divide our country like immigration. The debate pits our heritage as a country of immigrants, our compassion for others less fortunate, and fundamental fairness against legitimate concerns over border security, and the rule of law.

The merits of the debate, however, include far darker elephants in the room, speci cally subtle and not-so-subtle racism and fear. If undocumented non-white immigrants are given a pathway to citizenship, and ultimately the right to vote, the power of one or the other of the political parties would likely erode. Undoubtedly, immigration has a public and private face. To deny the underbelly would be disingenuous.

Despite decades of gridlock, there is cause for hope. As distasteful as the politics may sound, each party’s leverage over the other may result in a budget stalemate that neither party can afford. In the coming weeks or months, the gridlock may break with the perfect storm of clashing Republican and Democrat priorities, such as the federal budget, military preparedness, border security, debt-ceiling constraints, and the government’s self-imposed DACA program expiration deadline. The pressure to reach a compromise on Dreamers, or even more broadly on a comprehensive solution, may finally lead to immigration reform.

Maybe, maybe not. Midterm elections are, after all, on the horizon.

Does anyone dispute, however, that decades of failure by Congress and prior presidents to act on immigration is inexcusable? is is not a tragic game of human Hokey Pokey — you put your Dreamers in, you put your Dreamers out, you put the Dreamers in and you shake them all about. Uncertainty takes an undeniable emotional toll. Regardless of one’s perspective on immigration, Dreamers deserve certainty, their parents and families deserve certainty, those who love them, or employ them, deserve certainty. It’s time.

All Politics Are Local

Historically, the vast majority of undocumented workers in the U.S. were from Mexico. Not so any more — according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Pew Research Center, only half of the estimated 11 to 12.5 million undocumented immigrants are from Mexico. (Mexican immigration has declined steadily since 2009 and only 7 percent have been in the U.S. for fewer than 5 years). The balance is from around the world, including large numbers of persons of color from countries in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, the Philippines, India, South Korea, and China. Many are skilled and highly educated. Plainly, others are not.

Not surprisingly, illegal immigration declined during the Great Recession, and continued to decline ever-so-modestly through 2016. As a consequence, the average “time in the U.S.” numbers continue to increase. An estimated 66 percent of undocumented immigrants have lived in the U.S. for more than a decade — many for well over a decade. Some, like the estimated 700,000 Dreamers (young children brought unlawfully to the U.S. by their parents), only know the U.S. as their home.

Here in Washington, and locally in Whatcom and Skagit Counties, we all have a vested interest in the outcome. With our agricultural and high-tech industries and proximity to Canada, we are one of only six states (the only state on the West Coast) with a net increase of unauthorized immigration between 2009 and 2014. Half of the increase is attributed to illegal Asian and Indian immigration, many of whom over-stayed their tourist visas. In terms of sheer numbers, however, the single largest group are Mexicans who form the economic backbone and profitability of many businesses in our local counties.

The resolution of the immigration debate, therefore, will have very real local consequences. We need to pay attention.

The Case for Heightened Border Security and Limited Legal Immigration

Whether skilled or unskilled, and regardless of country of origin, all undocumented immigrants look to America, and our local counties, for hope of a better life. Their hope, however, came, and continues to come, at a social cost that is unacceptable to many Republicans and Democrats, even those who are sympathetic to their plight.

The starting point for their objection to a relaxation or liberalization of immigration laws, e.g., a pathway to citizenship, is typically the rule of law. By that, they mean, those who come to the U.S. illegally should be required to “get in line” behind those who apply for legal status here through legal channels. Fundamentally, they argue, illegal immigrants should not be rewarded for violating the law, notwithstanding the circumstances that caused them to immigrate illegally. For them, permanent legal status is on the negotiation table perhaps, but not citizenship.

This argument has analytical traction. Communities are entitled to control their destiny, to have a say in their futures. Immigration laws are designed, in part, so that the resources of communities where legal immigrants may move are not overwhelmed. For decades, California struggled with the massive influx of undocumented workers — schools, hospitals, and social services were not prepared for the increased demands. And California was not alone. Texas, Arizona, and other states were ill-prepared for the influx as well. The chaos, and the extreme strain on public resources, are some of the primary reasons why immigration laws exist, namely, to allow for orderly assimilation of immigrants.

Likewise, concern for border security and public safety is neither unreasonable, nor new. These historical concerns, however, have taken increased significance since 9/11, when the threat of terrorism on home soil became a shocking reality. More recently, the question of how to treat refugees displaced from war-torn countries in the Middle East have further heightened fears here at home among many. Add to the mix concern over cross-border drug trafficking, gang activities, and crime by undocumented immigrants, and the composite justification for increased border security is clearly legitimate.

Simply put, those who advocate for a fresh examination of how to keep America safe in today’s world are not being unreasonable. The fundamental question, however, is at what cost. Over 250,000 refugees from Haiti and El Salvador, who are here temporarily in the aftermath of natural disasters in their countries, are now facing deportation deadlines, their temporary status withdrawn in the name of “America First.” And refugee hopefuls from 11 other countries, six of which are Muslim-majority countries, are tied up in legal limbo with President Trump’s travel ban and concern over the potential for importing terrorism without appropriate vetting capabilities or procedures.

President Trump’s refugee policies are unsettling to many and for many reasons, but his proponents argue that the common thread is the security and safety of Americans and that the cost/ benefit analysis is sound and non-discriminatory. Ultimately, the legal system will decide.

One cost that immigration hardliners are willing to pay in the name of “Making America Great Again” is to restrict legal immigration by eliminating family reunification migration and diversity lottery migration in favor of a singular merit based migration policy. Chain migration, as the Trump administration refers to the family reunification program, is essentially immigration based on close family ties (e.g., parents, siblings, children and spouses), where U.S. citizens or green card holders can petition for these family members to join them. The lottery program, which is unique to the U.S., recognizes the value of ethnic and racial diversity by allowing a limited number of vetted citizens from certain underrepresented countries to apply for a visa under a lottery system. (If you recall, President Trump’s recent purported reference to “shithole” countries was in response to a bipartisan proposal that certain African countries and Haiti continue to be part of the lottery migration program.)

In lieu of these programs, President Trump’s merit-based immigration policy would cap the number of legal immigrants each year (ultimately to less than 50 percent of their current levels) and award legal status based on qualities and skills such as education, ability to speak, read, and write English, anticipated salary, investment potential, and achievements. In other words, immigration based on compassion for the suffering and plight of others would no longer be a basis for granting legal status.

The justification? According to President Trump, we cannot be great again if we carry all of the world’s burdens and take in the world’s downtrodden. Times have changed since the Ellis Island days. It isn’t fair to the American people; Americans must come first. We must admit only those who are likely to make a net positive contribution to our society. Trump supporters argue that his exclusive merit-based immigration proposal is color blind, not racist. President Trump’s approach to legal immigration simply treats America like a for-profit business by adopting non-discriminatory policies that add only those who will make American stronger.

The Case for Compassion and Fundamental Fairness

In the debate over immigration, border security may be the easiest to solve. Whether border security is enhanced by a combination of additional border patrols, new technologies like drones, ground penetrating radar, or even Trump’s wall in places where a border wall may actually enhance border security at a reasonable cost, security at our southern border is obtain- able at some cost that most taxpayers are willing to support, whether or not Mexico pays.

For the most part, however, illegal immigration today is not predominately a Mexico issue. It was in days past, and perhaps it may again in the future. But many believe President Trump’s “great wall” is not a rational solution to the primary residual Mexico-related issue, namely cross-border drug trafficking. Those who believe in walls, opponents say, should research France’s impenetrable Maginot Line that was built after WWI, the Great Wall of China, or the Berlin Wall. Walls don’t work. They never have.

This is not to say that strategically placed, technologically enhanced walls can’t be part of the answer to a multi-faceted, comprehensive approach to border security. Even President Trump’s opponents agree. Conversely, however, all but the most ardent Trump supporters now concede that an excessively expensive, face-saving “great wall” is simply not the answer by itself.

Thee more difficult, divisive issue is what to do with those undocumented immigrants who are already here—unaccompanied minors from Central and South America, Dreamers, the parents of Dreamers and their families—and those who hope to come as refugees or through the chain migration and lottery migration programs. is is the issue that tugs at our nation’s soul.

Few would dispute the importance of the rule of law or the need for enhanced border security. But polls show, time and again, that most Americans nonetheless favor compassion for those who are here, and then support heightened enforcement of existing laws (and establishment of new laws, as may be necessary) to ensure that illegal immigration never again hits crisis levels. Even the most hard-line anti-immigration proponents acknowledge, in principle, our nation’s proud history of welcoming immigrants, skilled or not, with open arms.

The Dreamers are the least controversial and perhaps the most deserving of compassion of all the categories of undocumented immigrants. Brought here involuntarily as young children by their parents, they are Americans in all but name. Dreamers are teachers, fire fighters, police officers, accountants, dentists and all occupations in between. Some didn’t even know they were illegal immigrants until they sought employment as young adults. They pay taxes, serve in the military, and raise their children to be law-abiding citizens. In short, Dreamers love this country because the U.S. is their country. Dreamers would be the first to defend the government’s aggressive deportation and/or incarceration tactics against undocumented immigrants who are violent criminals, members of MS-13 and other gangs, or involved in drug trafficking.

Many “rule of law” proponents, while publicly sympathetic, are privately hesitant to provide a pathway to citizenship as part of the DACA solution. eir reasons are unclear. Some even argue that our social security and Medicare systems are already failing; we don’t need to add non-citizens to those programs, which would only accelerate their collapse. Their logic, however, inexplicably disregards that Dreamers pay into social security and Medicare through payroll taxes. Would they then accept Dreamers’ contributions, but deny them the right to receive benefits and health care?

Fundamentally, we need, as a society, to ask ourselves “what is the difference between a 30-year-old female Dreamer who came to America with her parents at age 2 and is now a member of our armed forces, and a 30-year-old U.S. citizen” other than the “rule of law” issue. After 28 years of contributions to and sacrifice for our country, when has she earned the right for the scarlet letter from her parents’ so-called original immigration “sin” to be expunged from her record and to be called an American?

The equitable arguments in favor of permanent legal status for the parents of Dreamers are perhaps equally compelling, even if the moral imperative is not as clear. is broad category of undocumented worker, the rough immigration equivalent of Patient Zero, first came to the U.S. for a myriad of reasons decades ago, but primarily for a better way of life for themselves and their family. Many, if not most, have toiled with honor and pride in the shadows under the harshest of economic and living conditions. Why? Because no matter the circumstances, the alternative in their home country was worse.

Most of us have a similar family history.

And while their immigration here may have severely burdened public resources, many advocates argue that the immediate impact has significantly subsided, or been significantly absorbed, with the passage of time. At a minimum, if the first generation of undocumented immigrants were awarded permanent legal status, whatever burdens may continue to exist will be unchanged should we recognize their contributions to our society in this manner.

More fundamentally perhaps, advocates further argue that we lost any moral “rule of law” high ground as a country, as we sat on our proverbial hands, year after year, without addressing this issue. Some would say purposely. Which begs the question: Can we truly honor our heritage as a country of immigrants if we take advantage of their plight, look “the other way” and use them to fuel our economy with jobs that relatively few Americans may be willing to perform, and then conveniently cast them aside when we feel threatened by their numbers and potential political power? Many ask: “Is this who we are?”

And finally, for those who continue to believe in the spirit of the Statue of Liberty, President Trump’s merit-based immigration proposal and refugee policies do not reflect who we were for more than two centuries of our nation’s history. Most may concede that merits have a place in immigration analytics, but to the complete exclusion of compassion for human suffering? Many advocates fear that we risk being perceived by the free world as being so mercenary, so lacking in moral leadership, that we undermine that which made America great in the first place — our willingness to open our borders to others less fortunate even as we struggled to survive.

The Immorality of Our Failure to Act

Lest we forget, the Romans paid similar tribute to the rule of law. The Romans were also admired and respected before they were despised. We need to get this right.

Immigration reform has languished in Congress for decades. While Dreamers and their parents have lived in perpetual fear in the shadows, Congress and prior presidents have dithered, safe with the knowledge that undocumented workers, and their children, had no practical choice but to continue performing many manual labor jobs in support of our local businesses under difficult conditions. In effect, it can be said that we took advantage of them as much or more than they benefited from being unlawfully in our country.

At law and in equity, the statute of limitations and the doctrine of laches precludes an aggrieved party from asserting their claims if, broadly speaking, they sleep on their rights beyond a certain point in time. At some point, and advocates forcefully argue that the point is now, the U.S. has slept on its rights — some would say deliberately so — and lost the moral right to expel Dreamers and their parents, or to deny them legal status, a pathway citizenship, or the right to vote. They invested in the U.S. even further with each year of delay.

Congress, President Trump, and every president for the past 40-plus years, has had the moral obligation to fix the issue, and fix the issue fairly, respectfully and honorably, without creating second-class citizens. They failed; they should now own it. To quote one of President Trump’s favorite expressions, their collective failure to act is a “shameful disgrace,” regardless of which side of the issue you may fall. Immigration reform is not that difficult to solve if one has a moral backbone and an old-school sense of decency and gratefulness. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?


"Simply put, those who advocate for a fresh examination of how to keep America safe in today’s world are not being unreasonable. The fundamental question, however, is at what cost."