Friday, August 24, 2007

Elvira Arellano Makes Me Think.

The ongoing story and recent deportation of Elvira Arellano has affected my thinking about immigration.

In case you haven't followed it, Arellano is a Mexican national who has been living in the United States without documents for about ten years. While in this country she gave birth to a son, who is therefore an American citizen. She first made headlines a year ago when, facing deportation, she took sanctuary in a Chicago church. Last weekend she left the church and drove to L.A., where she was swiftly apprehended by immigration officials and returned to Mexico.

The angle of Arellano's specific complaint is that she ought to be allowed to stay in the United States because her eight-year-old son is an American citizen, so forcing her to leave would split their family. That has been enough to get her story heavy exposure; when something happens in the case it leads the news. Her supporters have dubbed her "the Rosa Parks of the immigration rights movement."

It's so easy to poke holes in Arellano's argument that it's not even sporting to do so. Likewise the ridiculous comparison to Rosa Parks. Arellano's side disproved its own central thesis when her son joined her in Mexico the next day. But it made me think, about this case, and others, and the debate itself as it has unfolded and been framed by various parties. My conclusion is that we Americans need to focus on three fundamental questions:

1) Do we, the citizens of the United States, have the right to regulate and restrict entry into our country?

2) If we have that right, are we obliged to exercise it?

3) If we decline to exercise it, is the right diminished or lost?

The first question is familiar. Most people can answer it readily and probably would answer it yes. The second and third questions are ones most people haven't considered and may regard as specious, yet there are many legal precedents for certain rights being diminished or lost because their possessor didn't take timely steps to defend them when they were threatened. Trademark rights are one example.

Arguably, we, the citizens of the United States, are guilty of neglect on immigration. Through our negligence, we have permitted 12 million non-citizens to enter our country and establish lives here. We have allowed it through our failure to prevent it. I have thus far avoided the term "illegal" for a reason. The way "illegal" is used requires a yes answer to my first question and total disregard of the others. The problem is, when you put a widely abused regulatory regime on one side (abused by everyone, including government), and the legitimate expectations that come naturally from a long, settled existence on the other, the "illegal" tag starts to look a little lame.

I also eschew the term "illegal" because it suggests that being undocumented is a criminal offense. It's not. Many people don't understand this. They assume being in the U.S. without permission is a criminal act. In reality, the seriousness of being here without legal status is similar to that of a parking ticket. Under the law, deportation isn't considered a penalty, just a correction of status. Yet in reality it can be devastating.

Although there is attraction in the argument that we shouldn't reward illegal behavior, perhaps "rewarding illegal behavior" is exactly the penalty we U.S. citizens deserve to pay for our long and continuing neglect of the problem.

Consider the following. You live on a large plot of land in a semi-rural area. You notice that someone has started to build a small house on what you believe is your property, near the property line. Instead of investigating it and, if it is on your property, taking timely steps to stop the construction, you forget about it. The house is completed, people move into it, they have a family, the family grows, and they continue to maintain and improve the property.

Twenty years pass. You want to get your affairs in order before you die and one of the things you decide to do is get rid of that house that you now can prove was built on your land without permission. Can you? The short answer is no, you can't. How are the equities in a case like Arellano's any different?

With that in mind, I propose a fairly simple solution to the whole immigration mess. If a long-term undocumented non-citizen resident can prove that he or she has been here for five years or more, lived a good life, been a productive member of society and generally stayed out of trouble, fine, they're a citizen. Easy, low-threshold test, virtually automatic acceptance. Stay under the radar for five years and you're in.

If you don't like that proposal, then do something about catching and deporting the people who don't qualify, and do something about securing the borders.

Why do people take great risks to enter the United States? Because they believe their lives will be much better here. They believe it because it's true. Getting into the United States doesn't guarantee a poor Mexican, Guatemalan, Greek or Pole a better life, but it increases the odds significantly. If that ceases to be the case, if the odds change, and getting-in and staying-in becomes a genuine ordeal and, ultimately, a crap shoot, one with heavy odds in favor of the house, the incentive to come here will be reduced.

Lower the incentive and simultaneously increase the difficulty by tightening the border and increasing detection and deportation efforts, and you're bound to reduce the number of new arrivals. It's fair to be tough about keeping people out, but we also have to be fair to the people who we have allowed, through our neglect, to build a life here.

Here's my other proposed solution. Offer Mexico statehood. Make a sincere offer, with appropriate terms, and see what happens. My prediction is that while there will be many loud objections, the majority of Mexican voters will want to accept. It will be similar to the reunification of Germany; not without problems, but doable. If the rest of Central America wants in too, I don't see the problem.

The fact that you, personally, have had a tough position on immigration all along counts for nothing. I don't care if you're the President of the United States or Joe Windbag down at the corner, neither one of you has fixed the problem. You're on the hook with the rest of us. We let them get in and, more importantly, let them, over time, build up a reasonable expectation that it will all be okay, that the life they've built here won't be suddenly ripped away from them.

This is how you get past the idea that they are not entitled to that life because it was built on a tainted base. To so rule is genuinely unfair, as in unbalanced, as in the penalty not fitting the crime. The current immigration laws are a pathetic travesty. Yes, the law is the law, but when you weigh the fact that no federal, state or local arm of government has addressed illegal immigration in an even remotely realistic or effective way, and weigh that against the substantial investment many undocumented immigrants have made in their American communities, that one arguable transgression counts for very little against their exemplary performance since then as the best kind of Americans. That has to count for something.

Although my proposals probably sound radical and unrealistic to you, think about what happens now. Instead of citizenship being granted after five years, we simply grant it to the next generation, no questions asked.

Which brings me back to Elvira Arellano. Right or wrong, her son will remember how we made life hard for his mother. He's one of us, with exactly the same rights as you or me. He's a fellow American. Don't we owe him something? Won't we build a better future citizen by being fair to his mom now?

Every American citizen shares responsibility for the immigration mess, all of us. Only when we accept that responsibility will we be able to solve the problem once and for all.

(This is what I was working on yesterday when the power went out.)

No comments: