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Commentary Immigration

The possible-impossibility of immigration reform

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By Jesus Ayala-Candia 

A plethora of articles invoke the call for immigration reform asking, “How did we get here?” and “What can be done?” Yet, what we should be asking is: Are we even capable of achieving immigration reform? 

Civil rights activists exhaust their voices demanding change, only to be drowned by the cynicism of ignorant politicians and the media alike. Their efforts are indeed commendable; nonetheless, little progress has been made. This shows that it’s not the advocacy for immigrant rights that is the problem, but that the cause itself is unable to resonate and encourage compromise between the opposing parties. 

The root of the problem extends largely from a fabricated ideology that is deeply embedded in our past. Historically, we’ve addressed immigration with a mindset and legislation based on xenophobic and paradoxical intentions that have constructed a narrative of fear in combination with broadly racialized policies, creating the moral tempest in which we find ourselves today. 

A narrative of fear 

During periods of economic uncertainty and civil unrest, most Americans join in a collective mentality to blame out-groups, such as immigrants, for their shortcomings. This in turn produced a negative depiction from the media which portrayed an “immigration crisis” in our nation. 

For instance, Latino immigrants were characterized as a “rising tide” coming to “inundate and drown” American culture. These metaphors turned militant when immigrants were described as an “invasion” where “outgunned Border Patrol agents” struggled to “hold the line” in defense of the “banzai charges” from “alien invaders”. 

Politicians have taken advantage of this sensationalism to advance their respective agendas on immigration. President Ronald Reagan charged that “terrorists and subversives are just two days’ drive” from Texas. 

President Donald Trump echoed this same sentiment by equating immigrants to criminals at the start of his presidential campaign and later by tweeting, “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” in reference to the migrant influx in 2019. 

This constant demonization of immigrants has inspired amateur nativist groups such as the Minutemen and the United Constitutional Patriots — the group that apprehended migrants by Sunland Park, N.M. — to act as a vigilante subversion of Border Patrol and prevent the “invasion [that is] never, never ending” at the Southwest border. 

This invasion narrative motivated Patrick Crusius to justify his racist attack as a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas” on a white supremacy manifesto published online hours before the fateful shooting in our beloved hometown.

Racialized laws 

This narrative of fear has been incorporated into our justice system by creating different austere legal avenues for immigration enforcement. The last immigration “reform” that our Congress enacted was the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which expanded Customs and Border Protection jurisdiction, increased the militarization of the border, and instituted Section 287g

This section deputizes state and local police to collaborate with federal entities to enforce federal immigration laws by permitting officers to question the migratory status of an individual — before or after arrest — and initiate the deportation process. 

Though this program is intended to target dangerous criminal offenders, a study by the Migration Policy Institute found that half of the detainees were convicted for 

misdemeanors or traffic offenses. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Justice has found constant evidence of constitutional violations, racial profiling, and purposeful checkpoints in Latino communities that are within a 287g jurisdiction.

Participation in this program remains a voluntary option that is up to the discretion of each law enforcement entity. Though El Paso does not participate in 287g, our state law incites this opportunity. The Texas Legislature enacted Senate Bill 4 in 2017 (A.K.A. “Show me Your Papers Bill”) granting law enforcement agents discretion to question the immigration status of a person they detain or arrest; this legal loophole essentially permits police to act as immigration agents via proxy. 

Legislators thus far have only proposed to “tweak” parts of the current immigration law, but that practice is not reformation; it is mere calibration. The immigration proposal by candidate Joe Biden reflects the same spirit. Even though it proposes the elimination of Trump’s immigration policies and improving accountability measures for CBP, there is no mention of amending Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act — criminalizing crossing the border without inspection — and no mention of revising the revamped Secure Communities Program — an Obama era program designed to deport violent undocumented offenders despite not playing a significant role in the arrests of violent undocumented immigrants.

Comprehensive — yes or no? 

Given this backdrop on immigration policy and perception of immigrants, I argue that the grand disconnect that reappears throughout our history is what primarily creates a big strain for immigration advocates to convey their message to the larger audience who refuses to either accept the facts, get a humanitarian heart, or both. 

Please note that until now, I’ve refrained from referring to immigration reform as “comprehensive immigration reform.” That is in part because I do not see how such a titanic task could be achieved when a sizable number of Americans remain numb and unmoved to these injustices.

Despite this bleak analysis of the possible-impossibility that is immigration reform, I remain hopeful that one day the call for immigration reform is finally answered. If other social movements have done it, why should this one be any different? 

The factor that gives me hope is that we have kept fighting to demand change, deconstruct the narrative of fear, and reject racialized legal statutes as much of this nation remains appalled by the quasi-internment camps and the overt human rights violations that this current administration has condoned. 

When we are ready to own up to our own actions will we truly be a nation that practices “justice for all.” 

Jesus Ayala-Candia is an El Paso native and is a graduate student at Texas Tech University. His research interests include immigration studies, Latinx sociology, sociolegal interactions and social justice issues. These views are his own and do not speak on behalf of those institutions.

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