Deportees, Then and Now

Congress returns from recess this week with the immigration system still failing and repairs still undone. President Obama is still promising solutions, but his administration remains a huge part of the problem.

Last Tuesday, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, wrote to Janet Napolitano, the departing secretary of homeland security, imploring the administration to stop harming her state’s economy with ramped-up immigration audits that force farmers and growers to fire workers they desperately need. “Concentrate instead on removing those who would and have harmed our society,” she wrote, “rather than those who contribute to our vital agricultural economy and heritage, and the safe and high-quality food supply that benefits all Americans.”

Mr. Obama speaks of embracing immigrants but has deported nearly two million of them. He and Ms. Napolitano, who left office last week, always said they were focused on catching dangerous criminals, but they cast a wide net that has fallen hard on day laborers, carwash employees, farm workers and others who pose no threat.

A wiser nation would have long ago reset the dials on this system. But instead it is set to expel and repel. The economy depends on the labor of millions of people who want to work legally and aspire to become full Americans. Instead they become fugitives and deportees. They languish in detention centers. They die in the Arizona borderlands. They work until they are caught and disposed of.

Anti-immigrant forces call this “attrition,” the slow expulsion of 11 million people through the steady accumulation of arrests. Mr. Obama says he holds out hope for reform, and a bill that passed the Senate this summer with strong bipartisan support would go far toward bringing those 11 million within the law. But House Republicans refuse to take up the Senate bill, and are proposing or threatening inaction or their own harmful legislation.

One bill, the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act, which passed the House Judiciary Committee, would have devastating consequences. It would give state and local governments the authority to write and enforce their own immigration laws, unleashing the full chaos of free-form foreign policies across 50 states. It would give poorly trained local officers more power to go after unauthorized immigrants, who would be subject to arrest and prosecution the moment the bill became law, and it would turn civil immigration violations into crimes.

The bill would also erase one bright spot in Mr. Obama’s immigration record: his program deferring the deportations of thousands of young people, known as Dreamers, who arrived as children. Other legislation the Republicans are considering would allow in hundreds of thousands of temporary immigrant workers but deny them the legal protections, like the right to change jobs, that would help them resist employer abuse.

The day before Ms. Feinstein sent her letter, there was a ceremony at a graveyard in Fresno, Calif., to dedicate a granite slab bearing the names of 28 farm workers who were being deported from California to Mexico in 1948 when their plane crashed. News reports at the time named the pilot, co-pilot, flight attendant and an immigration guard, but not the Mexicans, an omission that led Woody Guthrie to write a poem, later set to music, called “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos.”

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,

Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;

Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,

They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,

We died in your valleys and died on your plains.

We died ’neath your trees and we died in your bushes,

Both sides of the river, we died just the same.

America has changed a lot in 65 years, but not enough. We are still a country that eagerly, if not desperately, accepts the labor of immigrants but is slow to acknowledge their humanity. When singers perform Guthrie’s song today, not a word is out of date.

 

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