“Time for a New Paradigm” in U.S. Immigration Policy
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“…to serve the best interests of both nations.”
By Ricardo Inzunza
This guest commentary was first delivered December 1, 2016, as a speech before the World Affairs Council in New Orleans.
Seventy years ago when the core of the latest Mexican immigration policy was formulated, there were no two countries in the world that bordered each other that were more economically disparate than Mexico and the United States; consequently, we exerted a tremendous pulling influence on citizens of Mexico.
In those days, many Mexican citizens saw themselves in a survival mode. Then, a substantial number of Mexicans viewed America as a land of “unrestrained opportunity.” They were willing to endure almost any hardship for an opportunity to work here, with or without authorization.
Today, this is no longer the case. Over the last 70 years, conditions in Mexico have improved dramatically. They are now the world’s 11th largest economy and our 3rd largest trading partner, yet our view of Mexico remains locked in the 1940s. I believe our immigration policy is out of step with the contemporary Mexican reality.
If our relationship with Mexico is to serve the best interests of both nations, it cannot continue to be viewed in such a self-serving manner. A new paradigm is needed.
Our relationship with Mexico must be responsive to the current reality which begs for deeper integration, not more isolation and “get tough” legislation. As we begin to develop a new paradigm we need to be mindful of several things.
One of the major problems Congress will encounter stems directly from their inability to fully understand the definition of the term “immigrant”. Why is this such an important issue?
According to The American Heritage dictionary, an immigrant is a person who moves from one country to another to reside permanently. This is a good definition but it didn’t go far enough for our government.
For purposes of national security, the Department of Homeland Security amplified this definition. Homeland Security defines an immigrant as a person who has been legally admitted to the United States as a Lawful Permanent Resident.
The subtle, but clear implication from our government is that if you have not been “lawfully” accorded the privilege of residing permanently in the United States, you are not an immigrant. Accordingly, if a person is not an immigrant we should not call them immigrants. Yet, President Trump, Congress, and the immigration elite make almost daily references to the evils of “illegal immigrants” and “illegal immigration.” How can this be?
Not only are these terms incorrect, but over the years they have become pejorative symbols. If we are ever going to solve the problem of spontaneous migration, we need to conjure up a term which accurately refers to the population we are trying to identify. Here is how I see it: most of the folks here without immigration status have been living here for more than 10 years. Without a doubt, they are residents and members of their communities. But, they have not been granted lawful immigrant status; ergo, the more precise term of reference is non-immigrated residents. This defines them clearly and it is neutral in value shading.
If, as the Department of Homeland Security tells us, immigration is a lawful process, an immigrant can’t be illegal! The use of these bureaucratic oxymora only further obfuscates the problem and keeps the average American confused and agitated about immigration, which isn’t the problem! Our immigration system works fine for immigrants.
Another problem with using terms like illegal-immigrant, illegal alien and non-immigrant as though they are synonyms is that it creates the false impression that reforming our immigration system is somehow going to stop people from migrating and living here unlawfully. Many of the people residing here in contravention of immigration law never used our immigration program. They simply moved here, so reforming our immigration program won’t solve that particular problem!
What will solve the problem is the creation of jobs in the sending countries. We have more than 6,000 miles of border with Canada yet Canadians are not keen to immigrate to America. This comes about because Canadians believe they have economic parity with the US and their economic opportunities are as good or better in Canada. Therefore, they seek their future in Canada. The good news is: Mexico is well on its way to economic parity.
By providing a more precise definition for the term immigrant, the Department of Homeland Security moved in the right direction. However, in and of itself, this amplification is not enough. While this definition of immigrant may pass legal muster, to be useful in shaping immigration policy, it must be expanded to include the immigrant’s mindset. Here is why the immigrant’s mental attitude matters.
As Americans, we are justifiably proud of our immigrant stock. We proudly proclaim that much of the credit for what is good about America today belongs to those hardy souls who committed their brains, brawn and bravery to the development of this great nation. But, let us not forget, that when our forefathers immigrated to this country, they arrived not only physically, but they also arrived psychologically.
In other words, they not only came here to reside permanently, but more importantly, they came here to become Americans. They were immigrants—not migrants. We should never lose sight of this fact.
This immigrant decision, to burrow into the fabric of America, embodies the principal characteristic, which distinguishes immigrants from non-immigrants.
Non-immigrated residents are here physically, but psychologically most remain wedded to the sending countries. Survival and the desire to care for their families, the most noble of all ideals, brought them here—not the desire to become Americans. Is it any wonder that assimilation doesn’t appeal to them? Clearly, immigrants and non-immigrated residents are as different as apples and oranges. And the terms should not be used synonymously.
Further, what this should be telling our lawmakers is that not everyone here without an immigration status is clamoring to be an American citizen, so let’s stop acting like they are. And better yet, let’s stop passing laws, which expect non-immigrated residents to display the same patriotic zeal as immigrants. They won’t. That expectation is doomed to frustration along with all legislative efforts, which mistakenly cleave to this misguided notion.
The practical problems presented by use of these slipshod definitions are real and far more serious than may be readily apparent. For example, most Americans who supported the 1986 immigration reform legislation believed passage of the “Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986” was finally going to reform our immigration law. After all, the title promised reform and control of immigration. However, as it turns out, the legislation had little to do with immigrants. It was a “non-immigrant” bill, masquerading as immigration reform, but the Congress, so confused by its own imprecision, didn’t know it!
Here is another point. President Trump is often quoted as saying: “We are a nation of laws; those illegal aliens are law breakers and must be deported.” Has this ever made you wonder exactly what type of crime the “illegal” part of being an illegal alien is? Is “sneaking” across the border a crime? If so, how serious a crime is it? Here’s what you need to know about being in the country without an immigration status.
The confusion lies in the legal difference between improper entry, those who entered without inspection and unlawful presence, those who are visa overstays. Improper entry is not a criminaloffense. It is a civil offense. To be clear, the most common infraction associated with residing here without an immigration status is improper entry.
Under federal law, it’s a violation of a civil statute for a non-citizen to enter or attempt to enter the United States at any time or place other than through ports of entry designated by the Department of Homeland Security. The punishment, under federal law, for first time Improper Entry, is a minimum $50 fine. In cases of multiple entries, fines can be increased to $250 for this civil offense.
Like all infractions of law, there is a presumption of innocence. If someone is to be charged with improper entry, in order to convict, the crime must be proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, in an immigration court. Without a witness, this is often a difficult thing to do.
Unlawful Presence in the United States is also a civil, not a criminal act. Many people assume that all non-immigrated residents in the United States are scofflaws. This simply isn’t the case. Most of the non-immigrated residents here today entered on valid visas and then, for a variety of reasons, they failed to exit when their visas expired.
As you know, the Mexican and American economies are recovering from severe recessions. Historically, during hard economic times, Americans naturally react to immigration with feelings of fear that manifest themselves in different levels of xenophobia.
I have borrowed quotes from a book titled “Immigration, Opposing View Points.” The book samples American opinions on immigration from 1845 to 1990. Each of these quotes is over 75 years old. When the quotes were coined, they were intended to engender fear and cast immigration in a negative light. Do some of these quotes sound familiar today?
“Immigration will bring higher unemployment and lower standards of living.”
“Different religions and races threaten our Christian culture.”
“Immigration is spoiling America for those of us already here.”
“Immigration threatens the very survival of America as we know it.”
Belief in immigration quotes such as these strongly influences how average Americans view immigration in general and more particularly, since Mexico was our largest source of immigration and migration, how they view our relationship with Mexico. I say, “Mexico was our largest source of immigration” because this is no longer the case. The largest countries of immigration to the US are now China and India, in that order. The largest population of visa overstays are Canadians.
Things are much different in Mexico today than they were decades ago. Yet, politicians continue to try to scare us into supporting “get tough” legislation. They warn that we must gain control of our southern border because as soon as our economy is restored, millions of Mexicans are waiting to swarm across the border to devour American jobs and to lay waste to the American Dream.
To counter this anticipated invasion President Trump, politicians and the immigration elite continue agitating for the building of a great security wall, imposition of a 20% tax on Mexican imports and enhanced border enforcement
As it relates to the US and Mexico, what are we to make of the plans to build a great security wall on our southern border and to impose a 20% import tax on Mexican imports? Are they founded? Should we be afraid? Is our border with Mexico really out of control? Consider these facts.
In the past, Mexico was our largest source of immigration and migration so let’s start with this:
A couple of years ago The New York Times reported that the “extraordinary Mexican migration” of the past three decades that brought millions of Mexicans to America has finally dried up. Mexican migration is at net zero.
To amplify this fact, I point out that improper entry from Mexico—the number of folks entering the country unlawfully is down for the 7th consecutive year and apprehensions on our southern border are at a 40 year low.
In fact, more Mexicans are emigrating from the United States than are immigrating to the United States.
Arrests that frequently exceeded a million a decade ago are now down to less than 100,000 first time apprehensions annually.
In spite of the downturn in apprehensions, the Border Patrol doubled from 10,000 in 2005 to more than 23,000 today. Those who argue for smaller government, please remember these are career government employees.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported 700 miles of the Secure Border Initiative wall completed in 2009.
Maintenance cost for the wall, even if we don’t build anymore, is more than 2 billion dollars annually.
If these statistics are anywhere near true, can the call for more “get tough” immigration laws and the building of a great security wall between Mexico and the US be in touch with reality?
These reductions in the number of improper entries come about, in small part, because the recession and enhanced enforcement made it more difficult to enter surreptitiously and if you did manage a surreptitious entry, finding work here was very difficult. Most importantly though, migration flows and detentions are down because more and more Mexicans believe they can find economic parity in Mexico.
To fully understand the American-Mexican relationship, we must be aware of a lesser-known story that is seldom reported: How Americans view immigration has changed substantially over the last few decades. So what do these changes portend for our immigration policy? Here are some of my thoughts.
Prior to 9/11, immigration from Mexico was viewed principally as an economic threat. The major threat was that during hard times Mexicans, along with other immigrants, take jobs from needy Americans.
The attacks of 9/11 prompted a profound realignment of our immigration policies, practices and priorities. Before 9/11, talk about “the border” conjured up thoughts of migration from Mexico. Now, under our Homeland Security Alignment, immigration has been linked to every type of crime committed at the border: drug smuggling, cartel violence, money laundering, gun running, prostitution, people smuggling and white slavery, to name a few.
All of this crime is now viewed by most Americans as part and parcel of the immigration problem. This creates the perception that immigration has worsened, not improved.
Linking immigration to national security, terrorism and violent crime arouses fear and serves to keep Americans agitated, confused and divided on what to do about our immigration policy generally and our relationship with Mexico specifically.
Fear has reached the point where many States have acted independently trying to force the federal government to adopt more “get tough” immigration policies. Americans have every right to be concerned about all types of nefarious activities, including border crime. However, improper entry, when it happens, is a civil offense. It needs to be decoupled from border crime. Crime and immigration are as different as apples and oranges.
As Americans, we need to fully understand and appreciate the importance and value of the American-Mexican relationship. After all, Mexico, the world’s 11th largest economy, is our third largest trading partner. We buy 10 % of our oil from Mexico and export 15% of our petroleum products to them. Moreover, they are our next door neighbor. Nonetheless, we continue to see Mexico through an antiquated and distorted prism.
If my analysis is correct, our Mexican immigration policy is out of sync with the current state of the Mexican economy. Here are questions about the American-Mexican relationship we, as a nation, urgently need to answer.
- How much has Mexico itself changed? Do we still exert such a strong pulling effect on Mexican citizens?
- If Mexico has changed, what does this portend for the future of our relationship with Mexico?
- What changes to our immigration policy would be most beneficial to both countries?
Answers to these questions will help form the formulation of immigration policies which better serve the immigration and migration needs of our two countries.
The continued incapacity of both nations to communicate effectively remains the most difficult challenge and the key to more useful management of the relationship.
The question is: Will we seize this opportunity to re-frame our immigration policy and re-consider how we view migration from Mexico?
Or will the dysfunctional politics that swirl around immigration policy prevent us once again from doing what’s in our national interest
The time for a new paradigm is now!
Ricardo Inzunza, a native of San Diego, California, was appointed Deputy Commissioner of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) by President Ronald Reagan. During his 8 year tenure, his office was the central source for the development, implementation and oversight of all immigration service policies and practices. Now as CEO of RIA International, Ltd, Ricardo is often asked to serve as a business consultant to clients such as the World Bank and the Peoples Republic of China.
Posted 4 days ago by Armando Rendón