DMI Blog

Suman Raghunathan

Seeing the Light: Smart Public Policies on Immigration

No, this is not a trailer for a televangelist commercial on immigration. I’m talking about seeing the light on public policies that address immigration in a practical manner and acknowledge the nation’s stake in getting immigration policy right.

Someone said to me recently, “We can’t stick with the purgatory of the status quo on immigration.” I think that’s one of the few statements where some anti-immigration activists might, just might, agree with me.

And that’s likely where the agreement ends.

It’s clear that the status quo on immigration is not helping the nation’s middle class, which suffers a domino effect from immigrant workers who are often forced to accept unfair wages and working standards at the hands of unscrupulous employers. The end result of this form of workforce blackmail forced upon immigrant workers (particularly those without status) is shoddy wages and work conditions for all workers – including native-born ones.

I’ve written before about how our immigration system is broken, doesn’t reflect our nation’s economic, demographic, and political reality (Hello Social Security system solvency after undocumented immigrant worker contributions! Hello healthy birthrate sustaining the American economy after immigrants come to the US! Hello to the revitalization of the union movement after its embrace of immigrant workers!), and needs to be changed. That reality didn’t take root in Congress, which this summer decided to stick with the purgatory of the status quo rather than enact immigration reform.

(Check out DMI’s Principles for an Immigration Policy
for more on how immigration policy can acknowledge the rights and contributions of our nation’s immigrant workers while improving the lives of the American middle class.)

Despite all practical appearances that we’re going to stay in purgatory – there are a growing number of points of light (here I go with the religious metaphors again – sorry) in local governments across the country who are developing innovative immigration policies. A standout is my very own Governor Spitzer’s Executive Order to extend Driver’s Licenses to all New York State residents who can prove their identity, not only those who demonstrate valid immigration status. Along with our old friend Lou Dobbs, members of the New York State Legislature continue to rail at Spitzer (Dobb’s latest endearment for Spitzer is “spoiled, rich-kid brat”. I can feel the love, Lou) for tackling hard questions of immigration policy in an area the feds don’t want to touch.

Spitzer’s combination of pragmatism and gumption (we wouldn’t have expected any less of you, Eliot) reflects bigger thinking on immigration - and similar integration measures are taking root in other parts of the country.

A recent New York Times editorial lays out the arguments for why this needs to happen rather than the country descending into Lou Dobbs hysteria (thank goodness his show got pushed into a later time slot – my ears and eyes have been hurting for a long time from his knee-jerk nativism).

Across the nation, pragmatic elected officials are taking the bull by the horns, so to speak (no disrespect to the animal rights folks or to bullfighting fans) and realizing they have to come up with ways to truly integrate immigrants and their families into cities. This is about public safety via community policing, providing basic services to all residents, and government fulfilling its responsibilities to its residents. These elected officials see that, one by one, for now the buck stops with them on immigration – and that it’s up to them to figure out how to bring immigrants into the fold – because let’s face it, folks – immigrants aren’t going anywhere. They’re paying into the tax base, the Social Security program, they’re working in all sectors of the economy, and they’re sending their (often US citizen children) to our schools, where many go on to college. It simply doesn’t make sense to want to (let alone try) to deport 12 million undocumented folks – a full 5% of America’s population.

The latest and least likely addition to the growing roster of Governors, Mayors, Police Commissioners, and other elected officials is a Lexington, Kentucky Mayoral Commission on immigration – which on Monday night voted by a two-thirds majority to recommend issuing municipal ID cards to undocumented immigrants based on the wildly successful New Haven, CT, model enacted earlier this summer. The Commission also recommended Lexington officials lobby Kentucky state legislators to issue Driver’s Licenses to undocumented immigrants – a la our own Governor Spitzer, who continues to be put through the ringer by New York State Republicans and Democrats. The report’s other recommendations would also go a long way to bringing undocumented workers out of the shadows and into the system. They include:

-barring Lexington Police Department officers from receiving training from the feds in enforcing immigration law, and encourage the police department to develop strong relationships with all community members, including immigrants;
-enforcing workplace protection laws, which apply to all workers regardless of immigration status;

Lexington joins other state and local jurisdictions such as New Mexico (where undocumented folks are eligible for Driver’s Licenses with valid proof of identity), New Haven, CT (which introduced municipal ID cards for all residents regardless of immigration status) and my own New York City, which for the past nearly two decades has prohibited law enforcement officers, paramedics, and other city workers from asking residents about their immigration status.

On Monday, Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi joined the fold
when he announced the formation of a Commission to come up with ways Long Island communities can develop practical approaches to immigration policy – particularly in the vacuum of federal inaction on the issue (click here for more on information on the Commission) – co-chaired by a Nassau County official, Marianela Jordan, who was once undocumented and who’s now running one of Long Island’s largest county agencies serving immigrants and other residents. (Gasp! An immigrant - and a formerly undocumented one, at that - who wants to give back to their community! Shocking!)

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that local communities are going to have to develop their own practical approaches to immigration policy and make sure they trickle up to the feds, who remain more obsessed with border fencing than with figuring out how to see immigrants (particularly undocumented ones) as important economic contributors and vital parts of our community.

The National Immigration Law Center recently released a fantastic menu for state and local governments to implement that would go far to integrate immigrants into local economies and communities while also benefiting other native-born workers, particularly the middle class. Click here for the report, which provides a handy blueprint for elected officials searching for ways to acknowledge the reality of immigration in their communities – and ready to move forward.

But for now, let’s hear it for the folks in Lexington – they’ll probably need all the help they can get.

Suman Raghunathan: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 8:31 AM, Oct 24, 2007 in Immigration | New York
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