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Build a Nation, Not a Fence

We need an audacious immigration proposal that puts people before politics, and that means a concrete, expedient pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers.

As I looked onto the tens of thousands of people proudly waving American flags at April’s immigration rally in Washington, D.C., I couldn’t help but think of my immigrant parents. Both of my parents grew up in poor farming towns in Mexico. Driven by a lack of economic opportunity and a desire for a brighter future, they escaped to the United States in their late teens. They were able to become citizens through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which included Ronald Reagan’s so-called “amnesty.”

My father made his way through odd menial jobs — from dishwasher to construction worker — and eventually settled in as a truck driver. Today, he owns three trucks and manages a small car-hauling business. My mother managed the household and made sure both my sister and I got college educations. In essence, my family was able to achieve some measure of the increasingly elusive American dream.

Currently, there are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. Like my parents, these immigrants generally come from humble beginnings and share the common dream of a better life. With Hispanic voters overwhelmingly backing Democrats in the 2012 elections — and a robust social movement of immigrants and their families changing the public conversation — demographic-hungry Republican politicians are anxious to extend an olive branch to the immigrant community, while at the same time reluctant to enfranchise millions of likely Democratic-leaning new voters.

This paradox means that the olive branch is in fact full of thorns. 

One of the key thorns in the “Gang of Eight” immigration proposal being considered in the Senate is making a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants contingent on strengthening “border security.”


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This is a fig leaf for sinking the whole deal. Not only is net migration across the U.S.-Mexico border at its lowest point in nearly four decades, but President Obama has put more federal agents on the border than any other president in recent history. The border is already as “secure” as it's going to get. Moreover, it's virtually impossible to meet the elevated standards Republicans have proposed for border security, thereby indefinitely delaying citizenship for those already in the United States. There is no need to condition the dreams of 11 million people on fixing something that isn’t even broken.

Not that building a longer border fence and staffing more patrol agents are effective ways of dealing with an influx of immigrants. Ask yourself: If you were poor, hungry, or persecuted, and the opportunity for a better life were within reach, would you let a fence stand in your way? I sure wouldn’t. And neither have the thousands of border crossers who have risked dehydration, exposure, and violence as an increasingly militarized border regime has pushed them deeper into the desert.

Even President Obama’s own leaked proposal relegated the 11 million immigrants applying for residency to the “back of the line.” The idea may appeal to Beltway notions of “fairness,” but it’s wrong to delay the hopes and dreams of millions of people whose only crime was a desire to improve their lot. These folks can’t afford to live on the fringes anymore. They need an audacious immigration proposal that puts people before politics, and that means a concrete, expedient pathway to citizenship. 

Due to economic factors and security conditions, migration across the U.S.-Mexico border can fluctuate considerably. But the fact is that due to exploitative trade policies, a devastating war on drugs, and myriad local factors — to say nothing of a persistent demand for low-wage labor in the United States — many people born south of the border are going to conclude that life would be better up north. Millions already have. Our goal should be to integrate these people and bring them out of the shadows, not to punish them for their circumstances or send them back from whence they came.

My parents were given the opportunity the capture the American dream. The undocumented immigrants in this country deserve the same.

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Javier Rojo

Javier Rojo is the Institute's New Mexico Fellow. He recently completed his undergraduate degree at University of New Mexico. As a student, he conducted research on Mexico’s drug war and co-founded the Latin America Sustainability Association.

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