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The Need for a New Immigration Season

This article is part of a Special Section titled “CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS IN AMERICA” that ran in the August/September 2011 print issue of PA TIMES. Contact Editor Christine Jewett McCrehin ([email protected]) for more information on the print issue. See the Related Articles box for links to more articles from the Special Section.

Catherine E. Wilson

As we approach the beginning of Fall, it is clear that the United States needs to enter a new season of immigration. On March 27, 2011, the United States commemorated the one-year anniversary of the killing of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz. This tragic and senseless act was the fuse that ignited a national fire in immigration control and enforcement initiatives at the state level.

Indeed, the country witnessed a flurry of state legislative activity during 2011. In addition to the passage of 151 state bills in 2011, the National Conference on State Legislatures also reported that four states passed copy-cat versions of Arizona’s controversial immigration enforcement legislation (SB 1070)–Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana and Alabama.

During this same time, Utah became the first state to enact comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) legislation. With an emphasis placed on law enforcement and identification, Utah’s law also established a temporary guest worker program and an advisory Commission on Immigration and Migration. Like Arizona’s SB 1070, all five state legislative measures are being challenged in the courts.

Even though the battle over immigration politics continues to be waged–at all levels of government and by people of all political persuasions–it is incorrect to paint state legislative measures and federal administrative activity with a broad brush.

The introduction of Arizona’s AB 1070 bill is case in point. This bill, which would have rejected birthright citizenship in the state, was defeated not on party lines, but by a split from within the Republican Party. And, ironically, the bill was voted down on St. Patrick’s Day. Meanwhile, 13 states have passed versions of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, granting in-state tuition for undocumented students. At the federal level, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently decided that no state may opt-out of its Secure Communities program, a data-sharing initiative between ICE and local law enforcement.

And yet, at the same time, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) later announced on August 18, 2011 that it would no longer deport undocumented immigrants without criminal records. These immigrants will be permitted to stay in the country and apply for a work permit. Such legislative and federal activity hardly means that immigrant activists throughout the country have cause for celebration. As the prospect of CIR grows dimmer, activists now are focusing their efforts on passing piecemeal forms of federal legislation–such as the DREAM Act–and retooling their messaging strategies.

What is needed to bring about this new season of immigration? First, public dialogue is a must. A larger share of the population–outside of politicians, nonprofit leaders, and immigrant activists–must have opportunities to engage the issue of immigration directly, by participating in events that expose them to both sides of the issue–immigration reform and control–and allow for deliberation. A look at a range of nonprofit initiatives taking place in the City of Brotherly Love is instructive in this regard. On March 3, 2011, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia hosted an event entitled, “Putting the 14th Amendment to the Test.” Sponsored by the Peter Jennings Project for Journalists and the Constitution at the Center, the event featured a range of activists, scholars, and politicians who were asked to role-play a variety of real-life situations regarding the effect of immigrants and immigration policies in the United States. To a standing-room crowd, moderator Jeff Greenfield from CBS opened the interactive discussion, stating “we begin where the Constitution does–at the human level.”

Furthermore, the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians–an employment and referral center for immigrants in the Greater Philadelphia area–regularly hosts roundtables on immigrant economic and demographic trends at local community centers and the WHYY studio. These community forums create opportunities for the general public realistically to consider the challenges municipalities face regarding their immigrant populations as well as provide examples of immigrant contributions at the local level. And finally, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC) features Lobby Days in Harrisburg, where local residents can attend sessions of the Pennsylvania State Legislature and talk to their state representatives on issues affecting the immigrant community.

Second, the new season must showcase immigrant integration efforts on the part of local public officials. Public managers are well aware that integrating diverse populations is the greatest challenge for public administration in years to come. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 12 percent of the total U.S. population was foreign-born and an additional 11 percent were second-generation immigrants.

For public administrators, integration is an all-encompassing term, typically including language access policies, English language instruction, economic mobility, social and cultural interaction, and civic participation. At the municipal level, Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia has responded directly to the challenge of immigrant integration. In 2008 and 2009, he issued two executive orders which established a city-wide Language Access Policy and permitted all residents access to city services regardless of citizenship status, respectively. The underlying rationale of these orders was both to highlight Philadelphia’s cosmopolitan identity and to make Philadelphia a welcoming city for all.

Finally, this new season also demands an appeal to the historical record. After following both sides of the immigration debate in the city of Philadelphia from 2009-2010 as a researcher, I have come to appreciate starting the discussion on immigration “where the Constitution does”–at the Constitutional Convention. Deliberations regarding citizenship requirements for high political office at the Convention were lively but by no means monolithic.

Delegates like Gouverneur Morris, Elbridge Gerry, and Pierce Butler were united in their concern about the kinds of attachments held by the foreign-born. Alexander Hamilton, New York delegate and immigrant from the British West Indies, saw the situation otherwise. He believed that entrepreneurial Europeans would be drawn to the United States by the very promise of occupying the same “level with the first Citizens.” Indeed, the Convention debates offer a snapshot into an even larger debate that was brewing over granting political rights to the foreign-born.

How can we carefully wade back into that larger debate? For one, self-proclaimed progressives must learn to appreciate more the principles of the American Founding and self-proclaimed conservatives must be willing to delve more deeply into them. We must unite our attention to present-day situations with a better grasp of how immigrants have featured in the American political experiment–starting with Alexander Hamilton and James Wilson, Pennsylvania delegate and Scottish immigrant.

And yet, while history can be instructive in this regard, we are reminded this autumn that in forging a new season of immigration, we must not “fall back.” The nation has tired of predictable talking points and familiar immigration rhetoric–on both sides of the issue. Now is the time for greater dialogue and fact-finding–from the historical perspective to present-day immigration realities. This new season requires an educated citizenry as much as it demands innovative practices on the part of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

Catherine E. Wilson is assistant professor, Political Science and nonprofit coordinator, MPA Program at Villanova University. Email: [email protected]

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