Fall 2006 Edition
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Stirring Up the Melting Pot

Immigration Justice Rally

The controversial issue of immigration has dominated headlines for months. It has been the hottest of all hot buttons this election season. And Salem is not immune from the debate: In April 20,000 people, Latino and Anglo alike, marched around campus for an immigration justice rally at the state capitol (shown right). Willamette professors have also been engaged. After his editorial about the rally was published in the Salem Statesman Journal, longtime activist and Rhetoric Professor Nathaniel 'Nacho' Cordova still laments the bundling of immigrants with terrorism and asks, "Do we really need another war, this time a war on immigrants?" Law Professor Keith Cunningham-Parmeter recently won a $400,000 class action settlement on behalf of mostly Latino employees for overtime and workplace safety violations. Law Professor Norman Williams editorialized in The Oregonian that the political rhetoric is disabled by "a pronounced inability to see Mexican Americans — even those who are citizens and who have lived here for decades — as authentic, loyal Americans."

The Scene asked Law Professor Jim Nafziger to comment on the impact of Sept. 11 on the immigration debate. Nafziger, whose teaching and research includes immigration law, chairs the executive committee of the American Branch of the International Law Association and sits on the National Council of the United Nations Association.

Jim Nafziger

The terrorist tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, put the country on edge about migrants. Encouragement from media personalities stirred the unending debate about immigration to new levels of shrillness and polarization. In particular, the threat of terrorism became entwined with perennial issues related to the status of undocumented workers in this country. Vigilantes deployed along the Mexican border, members of Congress called for the criminalization of undocumented status itself, and plans unfolded for military defense of the Mexican border including the extension of a fence along it. Several proposals even called for an amendment to the Constitution to deny citizenship to children of non-citizens. Promising negotiations with Mexico to solve migration issues abruptly ended.

There are some new twists to this old concern. Nearly every decade, public concern about immigration surges, and Congress responds with new law. That cycle was reinforced in the aftermath of Sept. 11, with the myriad proposals pending today in Congress, most of which address three controversial issues: border security, guest workers, and expanded opportunities for legalization of residency and citizenship. The latest twist on immigration reform has been the edginess of the American public as well as the audacity of media personalities who took up the issue and greater political posturing. Suddenly the public has been confronted with the specter of a porous border, wide-open to terrorist infiltration as well as such acknowledged threats as drug trafficking. Suddenly, too, the ongoing search for effective means to control undocumented immigration has taken a radical, unrealistic turn. Imagine, for example, trying to round up millions of newly minted criminals if Congress enacted a law making undocumented status a felony.

The argument for drastic action against undocumented aliens is often expressed in terms of sheer numbers. While consensus holds that there are an estimated 10 or 11 million undocumented aliens among us, nobody knows for sure: The range runs from 5 to 15 million. But this is nothing new. In 1974 the federal government estimated 6 to 12 million undocumented workers, much the same as estimates today. If we account for the substantial increase in the general population as well as greater demands for labor in the service industry, even the low number of 6 million is roughly comparable to today's estimate.

The latest twist on immigration reform has been the edginess of the American public as well as the audacity of media personalities who took up the issue and greater political posturing.

Study after study has shown that immigrants, fully documented or otherwise, generally do not take jobs from citizens or cause a decrease in fair and decent wages, so long as the domestic labor force is adequately protected. The well-respected Pew Hispanic Center concluded as much in a recent research report. Studies also have confirmed that consumers and the national economy rely on migrant labor that exceeds authorized levels of immigration.

Other studies, focused on immigration processes in other countries, have revealed a correlation between the characteristics of immigration controls and who has authority for those controls within the government. For example, countries whose military plays a significant role in immigration control are more likely to be concerned about border controls, whereas vesting authority over immigration in a ministry of labor may imply a greater concern for protection of the domestic workforce. Understandably, then, the shift of authority after Sept. 11 from the U.S. Department of Justice to the new Department of Homeland Security has entailed a closer association between the terrorist threat and the presence of undocumented workers in this country, regardless of their origins or motivations.

The administrative restructuring of federal authority over immigration after Sept. 11 should not stand in the way, however, of separating the usual issues from particularized threats to homeland security. There simply is no simple correlation between sheer numbers of undocumented workers and the security issues that beset us as a society. If Sept. 11 made anything clear, it was the need for strengthening and fine-tuning enforcement of the law directed at specific terrorists and acts of terrorism, expanding public resources on homeland security, and improving public education in this nation of immigrants.