The United States Senate is in the early stages of debate on an immigration reform bill; passage is far from guaranteed. As many as 300 amendments to the bill are on offer, and some of them might be deal-breakers.
In fact, some of the amendments are probably meant to be deal-breakers. My own senator, Texas' John Cornyn, hopes to tie any change in the status of the 11 million undocumented workers currently residing in the U.S. to a 90 percent apprehension rate of attempted illegal border crossings.
Cornyn's proposal has a certain superficial logic, but some Democratic senators and immigration experts see it as an impractical obstruction to progress on resolving the status of the undocumented workers who are already here. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called Cornyn's proposal a "poison pill" that will doom any chance of success for the reform bill.
Why would Cornyn or any other Republican want to torpedo intentionally a bipartisan initiative to resolve the intractable immigration issue? Consider two contexts:
First, note the pervasive Republican determination to thwart anything that resembles success at the level of the national government, especially if President Barack Obama has shown even modest support for it, as he has for immigration reform. For some Republicans, resistance rather than cooperation or compromise has become habitual.
And then there are the 11 million undocumented workers themselves, by far the heaviest lifting connected to immigration reform. Most of them are Hispanics, a group that many Americans readily mischaracterize:
They sneak into our country at night by swimming or wading across the Rio Grande. They don't speak English. They smuggle drugs. They labor for low wages, taking jobs from Americans, and send the money home. They don't pay taxes, but they take advantage of public services like schools and healthcare. And even after they've been in the country for years, they don't keep neat yards.
But most of these characterizations are myth tinged with racism.
Furthermore, if your goal is to undermine presidential or national government progress on nearly any issue, these 11 million people provide attractive and convenient political firepower. Let's face it: They are in this country illegally, which makes it easy to characterize any "path to citizenship," no matter how rigorous, as an unwarranted amnesty – some call it "shamnesty” – and a subversion of the rule of law.
So, what do we do with these alien lawbreakers already among us? First, we should re-evaluate some of the myths and mischaracterizations. Most just aren't true. Furthermore, undocumented workers' cheap labor is largely welcome, their contributions are good for the economy, and many of their arrivals date to a time when "illegal" crossing was not only permitted but encouraged.
In short, many are hard workers who have the initiative and courage to do what we would do if we had to: To cross a traditionally porous border to make a better life for our families.
Sure, by definition undocumented workers are "criminals." Am I suggesting that we just look the other way?
Actually, I am. We do this often when it's convenient. For example, plenty of blacks and Hispanics are in prison today because they got caught with a little pot, while celebrities like Willie Nelson and comedian Bill Maher have made marijuana part of their brand. Even our current president acknowledges and jokes about past marijuana use.
And notice how little attention we've paid to whether Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush adhered to national and international law.
So, our attitude toward undocumented workers calls for less sanctimony and more realism and humanity. Perhaps we don't put them at the "front of the line" for citizenship, but let's not send them to the back, either. Most of them have earned a place somewhere in between.
Most of all, let's not make the resolution of their plight dependent upon the current political considerations that are working against humane immigration reform.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email [email protected]