Immigration reform: short on details, long on consequences

With the re-election of Barack Obama as President, Washington, DC and much of the country have refocused attention on the nation’s broken immigration system. The renewed attention on how we should best address the presence of approximately 12 million undocumented people in the United States has spawned rhetoric ranging from the lofty to the base. Many opinion leaders, including those previously opposed to reform, are now talking about creating a path to citizenship. There is an important context here, however. The Obama Administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than his predecessors, and President Obama’s talk of immigration reform virtually always comes in the same breath as promises to intensify further border enforcement and deportation activities.

That both the White House and the “bi-partisan” Congressional proposals for immigration reform have been vague about the particulars is understandable from a political standpoint, especially given the highly charged emotions frequently swirling around the issue. Nonetheless, the lack of specificity ultimately does a disservice to the people of this country, including the undocumented workers and their families who live here, as well as to the economy in general. The reality often is that workplace abuses – whether unpaid wages, unsafe conditions, discrimination, harassment, or retaliation – are more frequent and egregious when immigrant employees, especially undocumented workers, are involved. In that sense, immigrant employees can be considered among the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, as civil rights scholar Lani Guinier so eloquently put it in her timeless book entitled Lift Every Voice: Turning A Civil Rights Setback Into A New Vision Of Social Justice. In other words, the opportunistically exploitive behavior of some employers toward immigrant employees working in the shadows, so to speak, portends what native-born employees will experience working in broad daylight, so to speak, down the road if concerted action is not taken to turn things around.

In the interest of fair employment law, sound labor law, and economic sustainability, the political leadership of the country must bring true clarity, appropriate flexibility, and basic humanity to the Federal immigration regime. If the Federal government does not act soon, more State and Local jurisdictions may pursue costly, if not ill-conceived, initiatives to address the issue in ways that very well may have unintended consequences that hurt us all. Given the dysfunctional dynamics and obstructionist tactics afflicting Congress in recent years, one has good reason to be skeptical that comprehensive and constructive legislation will be enacted anytime soon.