Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Not about race? Prove it

   If 5,000 Canadians froze to death trudging across the snow fields of northern Minnesota to find work, how would you respond?

   Would you say, (a) "They deserved it. They broke the law." (b) "What a horror. Pass the french toast." (c) "We need to build a wall."

   That many people have died since the mid-'90s in America's merciless southern borderlands. Our response: (d) all of the above.

    A group aligned with the Catholic Church, calling itself No New Deaths, has chosen another response: water and supplies, and lifesaving intervention for people crossing the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona. Two years ago, a pair of No New Deaths volunteers faced a federal felony rap for doing so. The charges ultimately were dropped, but their story raised the question: Is American compassion dead of dehydration when it involves these people?

     No, not Canucks. Mexicans.

     A reasonable individual, one who draws a harder line on these matters than I do, took pains to say, "This isn't about race. It was about respect for the law, about public safety," and, of course, public costs. All are legitimate reasons to want workable immigration reforms.

     Those concerns are shared and appreciated by Jennifer Allen, executive director of the Border Action Network — except that rather than aligning itself with wall-builders and Minutemen, her organization is on the side of humanitarian groups like No More Deaths.

     Her message: If it's not about race, then why can't we have workable reforms that reflect social realities?

      Reality: The need for the labor provided by undocumented workers is self-evident. Anyone in the Southwest who has his roof replaced has heard none but Spanish words overhead amid a gritty, sun-scorched task.

       Reality: No matter what walls we build, no matter what law enforcement response we provide, the demand for such labor will draw people across the border.

       Sure, numbers have declined with the draconian crackdown seen in the last two years, including the imprisoning of thousands. But no penal or structural response is going to resolve the problem — just as you can't curb illegal drug trade without curbing demand.

      When Allen talks of "comprehensive immigration reform," she's not using the language of the wall-builders and the private detention center contractors.

      She's saying this: It's time to get real about labor realities. Dramatically increase the number of H-1B visas so people can work here legally. Make that a ticket to legalization if the person abides by the law and carries out the compact of citizenship.

      Many people who are galled by illegal immigration point out that their own ancestors came legally, sometimes after long waits. The problem now is that such considerations are in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security, an agency sworn to shut off cross-border traffic. Few Mexicans, therefore, have any realistic hope of plugging into the system and meeting the compact in question. Yes, that means no chance to honor the rule of law.

      Allen's organization supports legislation poised for unveiling soon that would put the task of setting the numbers of H-1Bs in the hands of a newly formed labor commission. Its determinations would be based on the realities of the moment, and would vacillate accordingly.  The commission would look at the efficiency of the naturalization process so that people who would give their lives to clean our hotel rooms, repair our roofs and harvest our fields truly would see a reason to play by the rules. In the process, they would be contributing through taxes to the benefits, like public schools, they would receive.

       Allen's response to people who want to see immigration laws mean something once again, and for a shadow population to buy into the responsibilities inherent, is: "We want the same things."

      On the other hand, if one's base desire is to tamp down swelling numbers of brown-skinned people, it's easy to understand why immigration reform comes down to taller walls, border troops and arrests even for humanitarian acts.

       John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.


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