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Suman Raghunathan

When Silence on Immigration Becomes Deadly

Like most other political junkies, I read President Bush’s State of the Union address on Monday night, and I was struck by his ever-shrinking lip service to immigration and the country’s need for immigration reform. Here’s what Bush II had to say about the topic in his speech, which is supposed to sum up the major issues facing the nation:

“Illegal immigration is complicated.”

Wow. Now there’s a nugget of wisdom for you.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting Bush the Younger to say much about immigration. The former Texas Governor’s effort last year to broker a (flawed) immigration reform proposal failed dramatically, and Presidential candidates and leading politicians from both parties generally use immigration as an assassination tool these days rather than as a vehicle to demonstrate their vision for the country.

Nevertheless, Bush’s silence in his next-to-last political adieu to the nation on how to mend our broken immigration system speaks volumes. My colleagues at DMI have done a fine job of analyzing the implications of the President’s threadbare and poorly-thought out pronouncements on immigration policy during his speech on Monday. Click here for their explanation of how the Oval Office and Washington’s continued myopia and intransigence on immigration hinders rather than helps the nation’s middle class, not to mention the millions of hardworking immigrant families contributing to our nation’s economy.

Instead, I’d like to provide you with a real-life example of what the latest wave of Scrooge-like public policies on immigration looks like at the state level. I’ve written before about how this rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment has increasingly been paired with poor economic policy in the form of state and local laws barring undocumented immigrants (and by extension, their (often US citizen children) from renting apartments, working, or using some basic services. And how. The National Conference of State Legislatures issued a report last summer that counted over 1400 anti-immigrant proposals at the state and local level. The New York Times reported recently that despite resounding legal defeats in the courts last year, there are still over a dozen state and local laws or ordinances in the legislative pipeline nationwide bent on barring undocumented immigrants from accessing local services.
Arizona recently enacted a tough and vindictive law that went into effect on January 1 and bars employers from hiring undocumented workers and imposes steep fines of up to $10,000 on those who do.

Oklahoma most recently joined this rather dubious pack when it passed a state law, the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2007, which doesn’t stop at barring undocumented immigrants from accessing jobs or state assistance (news flash: undocumented immigrants are already barred from accessing most forms of federal and state public benefits): it also makes it a state felony to harbor or transport undocumented immigrants.

As always, the devil is in the details, and they’re significant in this case: it’s up to Oklahoma to define what activities or help falls under ‘harboring’. That means community groups that provide undocumented immigrants with legal advice to obtain legal status, soup kitchens that dish out free meals to undocumented immigrants, even preventative health clinics or homeless shelters could all be threatened with legal action for providing basic human rights such as food and shelter to undocumented immigrants in Oklahoma.

So much for Southern hospitality.

The tragic result of such a mean-spirited law is the unnecessary and preventable death of 2-month old Edgar Castorena, a US citizen, from a ruptured intestine. Edgar’s parents, both undocumented immigrants, were so afraid of being deported if they brought their child to a hospital emergency room, they were literally paralyzed by fear for 10 days. The result? Their infant son died, unnecessarily and tragically, from a medical condition that an emergency room visit could have solved.

And here’s another place where the devil is in the details: the Oklahoma law has an exception for hospitals and clinics that provide emergency medical care to undocumented state residents. Problem is, Oklahoma’s recent foray into Scrooge-like treatment of immigrants (you give the state taxes, your economic contributions, and your hard work, and we give you…nothing) has spooked immigrant communities statewide so profoundly, it’s made undocumented immigrants reluctant to interact with the authorities, from the police to hospitals or even the fire department.

It’s when state laws separate undocumented immigrants from others (those with legal status and those who are already US citizens) that the real tragedies happen. Whether it’s eroded workplace protections for undocumented workers at the hands of shady employers who exploit their workers’ lack of status to force them to accept rock-bottom wages and unsafe working conditions, or little Edgar’s preventable death, it’s Separate and Unequal 2.0.

The more that states and municipalities target employers, halfway houses, even English as a Second Language programs for employing, sheltering, or teaching English to undocumented immigrants, the more unfair treatment we’ll see, at best, and more tragedies like Edgar’s, at worst. We don’t need more penalties targeting immigrants: we need a legalization program that will give undocumented immigrants legal status so they don’t continue to be exploited by their employers (thereby dragging down wages and working conditions for middle class workers) or retreat into underground communities and economies out of fear.

Without more talk and less silence, we all know what’s going to come down the pike.

Suman Raghunathan: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 8:02 AM, Jan 30, 2008 in Immigration
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