By Jeffrey Cohen, associate professor, Ohio State University
Governor Brewer's signing of Arizona law SB1070 late last month has shifted the debate concerning immigration reform in our country and changed the very environment into which migrants (legal and extra legal) now live.
The law, which at its most basic seeks to "deter the unlawful entry and presence of illegal aliens and economic activity by illegal aliens in the United States," moves the debate from the issue of immigration policy writ large to one that is focused squarely on the migrant and although not stated, the undocumented Mexican migrant.
Supporters argue that the law seeks only to implement and put into practice federal standards that are not now enforced. And while the supporters of SB1070 wrap themselves in the belief that they are only doing the work that the federal government cannot or will not engage, immigration reform does not begin with criminalizing the actions of a specific group of movers. In fact, there is no solution in this law to the challenges that immigration may (or may not) pose to our nation. Rather, SB1070 is little more than a bill that takes a vulnerable population and increases its vulnerability.
The challenge for researchers engaged in migration studies is two fold. First, we must clearly explain the law and why SB1070 must be struck down and repealed; and second, we must contribute to the immigration reform debate in a way that captures the challenges that face our country as we struggle with this topic.
Why challenge SB1070?
Regardless of our stance on immigration, the law is unconstitutional. The federal government alone can make and enforce immigration laws and federal laws supersede any state statutes, thus the law is unconstitutional. Just as importantly, no state can make laws that violate our civil liberties, which include the reasonable expectation to privacy and the equal protection. And here is where we as researchers become critical. We need to help citizens and immigrants (regardless of their status) understand that we all have the right to equal protection.
This brings us to my second challenge. We must contribute to the immigration reform debate in a meaningful way. We need to distinguish between the economics and morality of immigration. A focus on immigrants (and in particular, extra-legal immigrants from Mexico) does little to address the underlying economic and moral dimensions of the reform debate. The economics of US migration are built around a vulnerable pool of low skilled, low wage workers (immigrants) whose efforts guarantee profits for business while holding down costs for consumers.
Extra-legal workers have few resources, little voice and no representation. Yet, they are often recruited specifically because of these qualities. And here we meet the moral crisis that surrounds immigration. We must defend the rights of the immigrant for her or him as well as for the citizen of our country. We must help the US citizen understand the immigrant, like the citizen, is a casualty of a system that will not pay the wages including the social aspects of those wages that would build a healthy country and one where borders can be crossed to find work that is not done in the shadows, but in the open and with dignity and opportunity.
This means we have to walk away from the assumption that extra-legal immigrants are dangerous, that they are stealing jobs and that they must go home. Instead, we need to push for reforms that support and protect citizens and immigrants.These kinds of reforms begin with labor practices--not the migrant--and move away from the quick economic fix to create a moral economy where all can thrive.
Photo credit: Code Pink Arizona JUSTICE in Action
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Jeffrey Cohen, an associate professor at Ohio State University, focuses on migration between rural Oaxaca, Mexico and the US and specifically the social and economic impact of migration on sending households. His current projects include a study of Mexicans living in Columbus, Ohio, traditional food use among Oaxacan migrants and the ongoing analysis of the impact of economic crises, political unrest and the local collapse of traditional practices on rural communities and migration.