Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Congress Must Not Duck Immigration Reform

Ruth Melkonian


August 18, 2006

Despite this spring's heated Capitol Hill debate and the public demonstrations for and against immigration reform, federal legislation is being put off yet again. While the Senate and the White House have worked to counter House opposition to a comprehensive compromise, House Republicans continue to resist. A bill is unlikely before the mid-term elections.

The vacuum created by federal inaction is starting to be filled by state and local governments. This year alone, state legislators have introduced more than 500 bills on immigration and enacted more than 50. Congressional inaction in the face of the national crisis of immigration (illegal and legal) has sparked some reactionary and haphazard policymaking by lower levels of government that are poorly suited to deal with the issue. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity suggests that responsibilities should be exercised by the lowest level of competent authority. In the case of immigration—admittance to the country and control of its borders—that lowest level is the federal government.

Federalism does produce invaluable "laboratories of democracy" as states experiment with policy reform. But state and local responses to Mexican immigrants in particular, and Hispanic and other immigrants in general, are often far too costly and unjust to implement. Hazleton, Pennsylvania, for example, has targeted a range of actors including small business owners, who risk immediate loss of business licenses if an illegal worker slips onto the payroll, and landlords, who risk exorbitant daily fines for renting to illegal immigrants.

Can it ever be cost effective for municipalities and states to certify citizenship and to arrest, detain, and deport illegal immigrants? Panic and a fear of what Carlos Fuentes has termed "chromosomal imperialism" has led to poor decision-making and to posturing by local politicians who have far more pressing issues to address within their domains. In my state, the selectmen of Sandwich, Cape Cod (an upscale town with few immigrant residents), recently agreed to classify their town as "not a sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants—apparently in response to the recent reaffirmation by the likewise well-to-do Cambridge of its own sanctuary status.

Indeed, state and local politicians are trying to top one another to gain traction on the issue. Yet the Congressional Research Service points out that it is unlikely courts will enforce the ordinances of Hazelton and its imitators that address matters belonging in the federal domain. Such ordinances could result in discriminatory practices that violate the Civil Rights and Federal Housing Acts. Moreover, as Hispanic residents of these localities complain, such measures can provide a green light to those who wish to speak of immigrants—Hispanics in particular—in a derogatory and even racist manner.

Some citizens are looking for anyone to blame for a variety of woes (unemployment, crime, overspending), and numerous politicians seem more than willing to nominate illegal immigrants as the convenient scapegoat. Even Samuel Huntington, regarded by some as a proponent of a WASP United States, warns rightly that to ignore immigration issues related to Hispanics could feed into a nativist white backlash.

The problems and dilemmas associated with immigration are undoubtedly real and require swift attention. Unfortunately, many of the state and local solutions pursued thus far are partial at best. At worst, they feed into a frenzy of nativism this country can little afford. While national legislators can also yield to nativist pressures and give in to ineffective and unjust immigration strategies, they can and should be held accountable by the full array of American constituencies to serve the national common good. Ultimately, they are the ones with the proper authority to address this pressing issue, and they should do so now.

—Ruth Melkonian, Assistant Professor of Political Studies
   Gordon College

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”