Missing the point

The Obama administration needs to focus on real immigration reform

With tensions high over health reform, there is little room for other highly emotional debates. Despite these polarizing times, the debate over illegal immigration came to a front when the Obama administration revealed its enforcement policy in regards to undocumented workers. American Apparel became a template for the new policy when they were forced to fire a quarter of their Los Angeles work force, approximately 1,800 employees who possessed questionable paperwork.

American Apparel reportedly fired their workers 17 months after the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) opened investigations into hiring practices and employment files. These audits began under the Bush administration and currently effect over 654 national companies. Unlike the Bush Administration, which raided workplaces and deported illegal immigrants, the Obama administration wants to target employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. The Obama administration unveiled their new enforcement policy with American Apparel as their example in the hopes of deterring future employers from hiring undocumented workers. While stricter enforcement is necessary, it is not a supportable fix for a problem that extends beyond the workplace.

The decision to pressure employers to fire illegal workers en masse is hardly a productive policy considering there are no clear plans for future comprehensive immigration reform. It is a cursory cure for an all too insistent problem. All that really exists is a list of hefty promises from the Obama administration that reform is on its way. This, coupled with a non-existent timetable and lack of legislative pressure, presages an unsatisfactory outcome. Enforcement, while part of the solution, cannot be applied singularly without a more holistic approach. Such an approach requires extensive legislative reform, an increase in border patrol agents, a guest-worker program, stricter regulations, and more accessible citizenship. President Obama also supports legalization of the current illegal immigrant population, but has yet to lay down a foundational plan for accomplishing such a reform.

When asked about the recent firing of American Apparel employees, third-year College student and Prime Minister of the International Residential College, Danny Navarro said, "In other words, President Obama is targeting the wrong source, perhaps in attempt to show the conservatives that he is 'upholding the law.' However, such strategy is never going to solve the issue, an issue that the United States must actively involve itself in because of its historical involvement in the region."

Rather than make American Apparel a paradigm of the new crackdown policy, the Obama administration should have focused on curtailing employers who knowingly capitalize on illegal status. Rather than single out companies that provide employees with health benefits, stocks and pay above the minimum wage, the Obama administration should target unscrupulous sweatshops and employers that seek to exploit cheap labor. As for the thousands of jobs that will be open for American citizens, the prospects are equally nebulous. Illegal immigrants fill many of the day-laborer jobs such as working in the fields and in garment shops, jobs that are often unappealing to most American citizens. While arguments can be made that the Obama policy will directly help American citizens find jobs, any positive gains from the policy will be negated by the destructive impacts of the reform. By firing illegal immigrants, we leave them no alternatives but to enter sweatshops, turn to crime on the streets or join the ranks of our homeless. In an attempt to help, we will only be adding to our nation's woes.

Illegal immigration is not only a policy problem, but also a human problem. Often torn between the battle lines are innocent children, who through no decision of their own must live with the consequences of U.S. policy decisions. The U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants are deemed American citizens by the Constitution. By firing undocumented workers, we are not only affecting those who are here illegally, but we are also penalizing their children. We must not breed a nation of hate propelled by anti-immigrant sentiment and racism. We must educate and encourage these young Americans to grow to be productive American citizens. Obama's policy attempts to placate liberals and human rights activists who vigorously railed against the Bush administration deportation raids. In reality, many of the workers fired will likely still face deportation. Many of these illegal immigrants enter the U.S. not by choice, but out of a pure desperation to survive. Navarro says, "I believe that one of the biggest misconceptions is that the illegal immigrants are intentionally breaking the law in order to drain the wealth of this country." Navarro insists that, "The policy of targeting employers for hiring illegal immigrants is not solving the overriding problem of this issue: that is the continued economic, social, and political inequalities present in Latin America today."

The problem of illegal immigration is one that should have been addressed years ago. Instead it has been allowed to fester. The number of people entering the U.S. annually continues to rise. Comprehensive immigration reform cannot continue to play second fiddle to other pressing issues such as health care and energy reform. Once people cross our borders, legally or illegally, they become our problem and our responsibility. Therefore, this is not an argument against workplace enforcement, but rather a call for a more complete response to the problem at hand. The need for more exhaustive immigration reform is required before implementing policies such as firing currently employed illegal immigrants. Though it promises to be an unpleasant battle, the need for comprehensive immigration reform needs to take top priority for the Obama administration.

Ashley Chappo is a Viewpoint writer for The Cavalier Daily.

related stories