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Daniel Kanter

The Faces of Illegal Immigration, Redefined

In the almost two months since Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed Arizona’s controversial immigration reform legislation into law, one thing has become abundantly clear: the implications and effects of the legislation are hardly confined to Arizona. The past few months have seen a sharp increase in the amount of attention afforded to the divisive immigration debate in the national dialogue. Today’s news brings further legitimacy to the rumblings that the Justice Department will, in fact, sue Arizona over the law. And despite that SB1070 was broadly criticized before and after its passage for its potential to invite racial profiling, jeopardize public safety, and violate civil rights laws, a Gallup poll from the days after its passage revealed that 51% of Americans favored the law.

Several states including Virginia have been discussing adopting similar laws. The percentage of individuals citing immigration or illegal immigration as the number one problem facing the country increased to 10 percent in May, up from just two percent in April. It is the highest percentage recorded since January 2008, soon after the Bush administration tried to tackle immigration reform in 2007.

At the same time, it seems that the press has adopted a new trend in an effort to reframe the immigration debate on a more personal level. On Friday, the New York Times published an article about Hervé Fonkou Takoulo, a citizen of Cameroon, whose wife, an American citizen, wrote a letter to President Obama pleading for Takoulo’s case to be reopened after he was denied a green card and ordered deported. Instead, the letter made it to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, who confronted Takoulo outside his Manhattan apartment, arrested him, and brought him to the Hudson County Correctional Center in New Jersey. He stayed for two weeks before being released with an electronic ankle monitor while his case is reviewed.

Today, the Boston Globe continued their coverage of Eric Balderas, the nineteen year old Harvard biology student who has recently gained attention in the mass-media. Balderas was brought to the country illegally from Mexico when he was just four years old, and has been enmeshed in a fight with the ICE for the past few weeks after being detained in the San Antonio Airport. Yesterday it was announced that his deportation would be deferred indefinitely, allowing him to continue his studies, at least for now.

Despite the Obama administration’s stated policy of arresting illegal immigrants only if they have criminal records, both men have clean backgrounds. This speaks to a larger point about the nature of these arrests, however. The search for illegal immigrants has taken on a sort of witch-hunt quality, in which a promising student whose only mistake was losing his Mexican passport faced deportation to a country he doesn’t remember, and a desperate letter asking for help from the President was improperly used to track down and detain a man who only wants to settle down with his wife and have children but faces an uncertain future. But the stories also seem to illuminate a broader, and hopefully sustained effort by the press to reveal the faces behind the illegal immigration debate. Perhaps through stories like these, which help to illustrate the long-deserved and underrepresented nuance of this issue, we can begin to reframe the debate from an “us vs. them” conflict to an issue of humanity, equality, fairness, and justice.

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Posted at 5:23 PM, Jun 22, 2010 in Immigration
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