May 22, 2003
Last week's gruesome discovery of two trailers full of Mexican immigrants in Texas -- including 18 who had suffocated -- reflects a failure of U.S. policy.
To crack down on immigration from Mexico, Washington has boosted patrols along the most common entry points. This has forced migrants to the more dangerous routes across our mountains and deserts in the Southwest. It has also encouraged the practice of smuggling human cargo.
As a result, more than one person per day dies while attempting to enter the United States.
Yes, the smugglers in the Texas case were ruthless, and should be dealt with swiftly. But it is too easy simply to point fingers at them or at the U.S. enforcement strategy. It is also true that Washington has failed to encourage broad-based economic development in Mexico; the pressure to migrate has remained largely unchanged for many years.
Perhaps most serious of all is that for far too long Americans have tolerated an immigration policy that is dangerously out of touch with the economic realities driving migration. We have succeeded in diverting migrants to the most perilous crossing points, but we have not stopped or even slowed migration. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 immigrants cross the U.S.-Mexico border to stay every year -- a pace that has remained unchanged over two decades.
The reality is that if the workers who suffocated in that trailer had reached their destinations safely, they would have found jobs in the United States in a variety of industries that depend on undocumented workers. As Americans, we all benefit from the labor of workers like them. If we pay attention, we notice that the hardworking people who care for our children and elders, clean our offices, serve in our hotels and restaurants and harvest the food we eat are very often immigrants. Some, like the husband of a U.S. citizen who perished in that trailer, would be legal residents if the law didn't create unnecessary obstacles which prevent them from gaining legal status.
Our immigration laws are intended to reunite families, but our current punitive approach prohibits many U.S. citizens from obtaining visas for their loved ones if at any point they were in the United States without the proper papers. Does America really need laws so harsh that the spouses of U.S. citizens need to be smuggled back in rail cars after visiting their parents in Mexico?
In early September of 2001 I testified in the Senate along with an unlikely duo: John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO and Tom Donahue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. All three of us agreed that immigrants are important to the United States and that our immigration laws need comprehensive reforms that better reflect their place in our economy.
First and foremost, we need to provide a path to legal status for those who are here, working hard, paying taxes and sustaining our nation economically.
We must also redirect the future flow of migrants away from deadly deserts and smuggling routes.
And these workers should have the same rights as others in our labor force. They should be allowed to come here with their families, and they should have the opportunity to earn permanent legal status if they are needed here and wish to stay.
The momentum for immigration reform stalled after Sept. 11. But a nation committed to security is far better off knowing exactly who is here and who is entering. Far from being too difficult to achieve in these challenging times, comprehensive immigration reform is more urgent now than ever.
For decades, America's immigration policies have amounted to a charade. Even as we expend great resources attempting to keep immigrants out, our industries depend on them. What's more, these immigrants end up contributing to our nation in many ways.
It's long past time to acknowledge our reliance on immigrant workers and to reform our laws in a way that provides them with a lawful, safe, and dignified means of coming to the United States. Let's achieve these reforms before we find more trailers full of suffocated human beings.
Raul Yzaguirre is the president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of La Raza (www.nclr.org), an umbrella organization for more than 300 community-based organizations nationwide dedicated to improving life opportunities for Hispanics.