Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Taking Stock of (Lack of) Progress with Immigration Reform

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

There has yet to be any significant movement on immigration reform. They announced another hearing for later this week, and the expectation is that a bill would come before the House/Senate sometime in early 2010. Luis Gutierrez from Illinois has raised concern about the delay in dealing with legislation, saying that waiting until next year with the pressure of mid-term elections will translate into impasses and stalling. Unfortunately, he is probably right… 

There are some significant issues moving through at least initially. On a larger level, the administration is set to release a review on detention practices calling for an overhaul. The little that I have been able to find out about it is that it has a number of positive elements: considering alternative detention options for non-criminal immigrants. (Currently everyone can wind up in jails/prisons with criminals, even asylum seekers!) There is also talk of better direct supervision from DHS in the main detention centers – much of this has been “entrusted” to the detention centers themselves, and it has resulted in uneven and problematic enforcement of standards. The review also calls for better “basic expectations,” including better access to telephones.

Two concerns that have risen for me in what I have read is the fact that there is an expectation to “learn more from the private sector.” That always sounds good, right, but it depends on what they mean by the private sector. If this means increased reliance on private jails, it is seriously problematic. In the aftermath of Postville, the “private” detention centers were the hardest to deal with. Treatment was uneven, and getting information about individuals was impossible (since the private detention centers do not have the “custody” over individuals, they cannot – or at least refused – to provide any information or communicate with those detained). On the other hand, if learning from the private sector involves exploring alternative detention in places like those provided by LIRS and others for ORR, that could be positive.

The second area of concern for me is that there was no mention – in what I have read anyway – of creating some kind of centralized database of those detained. This is a huge project, since an estimated 400,000 people make their way through this gargantuan system of somewhere around 32,000 “beds” each year. Again, from the Postville experience (and others) a significant “humanization” of the process would come from being able to figure out where an individual is at any given time. Currently it’s a hotchpotch, time consuming, frustrating and often ineffective process trying to locate someone. And it is all complicated by the “security” concerns as people are moved between detention spots, which happens quite regularly both because of cost and process.

There seems to be some increased activity in religiously-affiliated groups to try to organize and get the word out. With so much else going on politically – healthcare, a review of war policy and engagement, economy – it seems difficult to keep attention to this conversation. Again, the important piece here is to recognize the connection of our immigration conversation to all of these issues. Unfortunately, some of those connections are being drawn negatively around the health care reform discussion, particularly in trying to work very hard to make sure to exclude immigrants – for sure those undocumented, but to a large extent even documented immigrants – from any of the benefits of the reform. Jim Wallis from Sojourners published a significant piece on this regard yesterday in the Huffington Post, highlighting significant concern about how fear/resentment against immigrants as a policy-making motivator is really against the grain of the values of the nation – and certainly against Christian convictions. What does it say about us as a nation that – as we try to improve aspects of our health care – we must spend so much energy and time, with horrendous comments going unchecked, to try to exclude some people from these benefits? Wallis’ concern is how this further stereotypes and excludes people who already live among us…

More locally, a number of things are happening as well. After several months of “silence” regarding the ongoing immigration remedy cases for people who were affected by the Postville raid, three additional U visas have been granted in the last couple of days! This has been incredible. Hopefully it will mean that additional cases will be resolved soon. People have been in limbo now for a year and a half. One of the cases is for a young woman whose main dream has been to attend college. She was an excellent student through high school and has been sort of stuck since the raid, although she has continued to try to improve her language skills and take courses at an area community college.

Additionally, a couple of events are in the planning. One is a “Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers” event intended to organize a potluck/town hall meeting inviting elected officials and community members. Our particular one will evolve around hearing the stories of a number of immigrants – from over decades – to tell their personal stories. Those stories will be matched with readings about Biblical stories of “immigrants” who have shared aspects of those individuals’ experiences. For example, pairing Joseph with a successful businessperson; Daniel with a college student who has “migrated” to the community here to learn, etc.

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