Putting more than 90 Cities across the United States to shame New Haven, Connecticut, recently offered the city’s 10,000 to 15,000 undocumented immigrants legal identification cards that would allow them to open bank accounts, get library cards and access other services that would otherwise been closed and unavailable to them. This progressive, sane and sensible policy is a ray of hope is in stark contrast to those cities that now have draconian immigration laws or proposals that have made life unbearable for America’s reported 12 million undocumented immigrants.
“I applaud this move by New Haven and I’m sure that other cities will take a page out of their book. I certainly hope that we in New York City can offer this humane and practical relief to our undocumented. This would help bring them out of the shadows. I congratulate Mayor John DeStafano on such a bold and progressive move and the local City Council for supporting him by passing this piece of legislation,” said Councilman Dr. Kendall Stewart, Chair, Immigration Committee of New York’s City Council.
New Haven, a city of approximately 150,000 residents, has an estimated undocumented population of somewhere in the region of 10,000 and Mayor DeStafano said that "the simple straightforward purpose here is to build a stronger community. You can't police a community of people who won't talk to our cops."
Riddled by xenophobia cities across the United States have reacted to the most vulnerable population in the United States as if all of its members were criminals deserving of incarceration. Some Republican commentators have even put the undocumented in the realm of potential terrorists and akin to criminals like rapists and murderers. In this dangerous climate opportunistic local politicians have been pandering to their voter base and seeking to enact the most repressive and inhuman local laws by fear-mongering and rabblerousing.
Apocalyptic statements by politicians who deliberately stoke the fire of local insecurities by obliquely equating undocumented immigration with terrorism have done a great job of demonizing a defenseless population. Tough-talking mayors, Senators and Congressman calculate that by framing the immigration debate around the terrorism of 9-11 they win local votes because this deflects their chronic shortcoming and failures from public scrutiny. And the undocumented have very few voices that come out in their defense so politically this is a gift to political opportunism.
They have been able to do that because of the failure of the United States Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform laws leaving the issue confused and in political limbo. States have therefore usurped the right of the federal government to deal with immigration by passing laws tailor-made to make life increasingly difficult for the undocumented as the mainstream media and right-wing elements demonize the undocumented offering quasi-legal cover for reactionary, unjust and anti-people laws.
“Congress’s dithering and procrastination has resulted in making the immigration issue murky, confused and uncertain. By failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform laws the Congress has removed itself from the debate for the time being and have allowed states to assert their rights to pass laws that are in their interests. This is why we are seeing such dangerous immigration laws and proposals being enacted across the nation,” Councilman Stewart said.
In many states, in Philadelphia, for example, draconian anti-immigrant laws have forced landlords to not rent to the undocumented, is penalizing businesses that employ them by enforcing employer sanctions; hospitals are being pressured to report the undocumented who use emergency rooms as clinics, even to deny them care, and more ominously the undocumented are now being asked to prove their immigration status by providing valid social security numbers to enroll children in public schools and to gain access to any entitlement programs.
The mayor of New Haven said the federal government had failed to address immigration-related issues, forcing cities to find ways to manage them. New Haven is simply acknowledging the people who already live there, he said.
"I think New Haven is doing something that makes sense for New Haven," DeStefano said. "Service to one another in community, more than waving an American flag, defines the spirit of our soul."
Opponents of the measure say that New Haven unfairly rewards those who break the laws – a Republican anti-immigration mantra. They fear that New Haven’s move will metastasize around the nation and that anarchy will be the end-result. Such unfounded and unjustified fear-mongering is now a staple of the anti-immigration cabal who keep seeing the undocumented simply as “people who broke America’s laws and therefore should be locked up.”
But with the US Congress taking immigration off of the table – for the time being – states are left to interpret for themselves the best ways to cope with a mounting social challenge. While some rabid Republicans favor rounding them up and deporting them others fear the serious political backlash especially during the upcoming US presidential elections. And still others feel that it is impractical and inhumane to uproot undocumented families that have children born in the United States – and therefore US citizens – and throw them out of the country.
Republicans in the House and Senate have tied immigration reform squarely to President George Bush’s war on terror arguing for “securing the borders” first and then dealing with those immigrants already here. The confusion starts from the fact that hard-line Republicans do not want to grant a blanket amnesty to the undocumented because that “rewards” them for breaking US immigration laws.
The other sticking point is President Bush’s temporary guest worker program that both Democrats and Republicans condemn as simply a mechanism to import cheap, exploitable labor for corporate America. Under this proposal these temporary workers will be allowed in for a period of two years in the first instant, and three in the second and will be required to leave the country after working for basic minimum wages. There is no path to permanent residency or eventual citizenship and immigration advocated has called the plan deeply flawed and unworkable.
Worse yet, Congress will not tackle immigration before November 2008 since this is a presidential election year. What this means is that while Congress dawdles and dithers states will find creative ways to deal with immigration matters that will be directly influenced by local politics and other punitive considerations. And Congress is likely – only likely – to take up the debate in late 2009 after the sniping over the Iraq war yields its fair share of hype, posturing and evening news sound bites. For now immigration is on the back burner as far as Congress is concerned.
New Haven has led the way in producing a good model that states like New York and California that have large undocumented populations might want to look at and fix to their own local conditions. The New Haven model gives a defenseless, vulnerable population that has been at the mercy of the most rabid, hate-based, vitriolic, cowardly and racist legislations, proposals and statements hope that America is truly the land of the free. New Haven, Connecticut, population 150,000, has taken a giant step forward in this immigration debate and demonstrated that it is indeed “the home of the brave.”