In which I respond to the people commenting on the NYT article about Obama’s executive order on immigration

So this morning, President Obama announced that undocumented students who would be covered under the DREAM Act will no longer be deported. This policy applies to people who are under 30, arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16, have been here for at least five years and have no criminal record. They also must be currently in school, have a high school diploma or served in the military.

Obama is essentially shifting policy through executive action, and while it’s similar to the DREAM Act, it doesn’t provide a path to legal citizenship for undocumented students. Instead, it grants a two-year “deferred action” during which an individual is essentially safe from deportation. People who are granted this deferral may then apply for work permits.

While this isn’t citizenship and doesn’t solve the immigration problem in the long term, it’s an important short-term step towards a more humane immigration policy. I was really excited reading the New York Times’ article about it, and then I decided to look at the comments. Where, naturally, I lost most of my faith in humanity.

Every time immigration comes up, people respond with all kinds of xenophobic, racist and just plain factually inaccurate stuff to justify their opposition to treating people like human beings. And I’m getting pretty sick of it. So, I’m going to pick a few choice comments from the NYT’s article and respond to them here. (Trigger warning: racism)

1) These people are illegals and by definition, criminals. Therefore they should all be deported as soon as possible.

Okay, first of all, “illegal” is an adjective, not a noun. So a person can’t be an “illegal.” But I digress.

U.S. immigration laws are civil, and violating them has historically been a civil offense, not a criminal one. Until very recently, it has been federal policy to apply prosecutorial discretion when criminally prosecuting people for violating immigration laws. This means that, except in rare cases where an undocumented immigrant committed a more serious crime, people are generally deported with only a civil infraction (the equivalent of a parking ticket) rather than a criminal conviction. Most people here illegally have never been convicted of any crime, in violation of immigration laws or otherwise.

This is now changing, as federal initiatives like Operation Streamline seek to criminalize unauthorized immigration to dissuade people from trying to come to the U.S., which brings me to my second point. Pointing out that someone has broken a law has no bearing on whether or not the law itself is just. Nobody is disputing that people who came to the U.S. in violation of its immigration laws have broken those laws. People are arguing that those laws are unfairly applied and have many, many unintended consequences which are bad both for the individuals affected and the nation as a whole. These consequences include familial separation, as well as large numbers of bright, ambitious students who are unable to attend college and contribute to the U.S. because they can’t afford tuition and aren’t eligible for financial aid because of their immigration status.

Which brings me to the they should all be deported line. As for that, I offer only this article. Next?

2) I am naturalized citizen who patiently and painstaking waited on line and went through the whole legal process. This is going to encourage more illegal immigrants crossing the border with children in tow and more anchor babies. This makes me sick to my stomach!

So, you waited in line and got legal residency. Good for you. (Seriously, good for you.)

Here’s the thing, though. U.S. immigration works on a quota system, where each country in the world has the same cap on the number of people who can get immigrant visas each year. In order to apply, you need to have a close relative, generally a sibling, parent or child, who is already a U.S. citizen (this is called an F4 application). If you’re from a country with very few applicants, like Iceland, awesome–you can get a visa pretty quickly. If you’re from a country like Mexico or the Philippines, you’ll be waiting a while. The wait for Mexico is currently somewhere between 15 and 20 years if you already have a close relative in the U.S. Waiting in line simply isn’t an option for many people, least of all those who were brought to the U.S. by their parents and have been living and going to school year for years.

In order to be eligible for Obama’s “deferred action,” someone must have already been living in the U.S. for five years. Trust me, this isn’t going to encourage anyone to cross the border who wasn’t already going to cross. And if you’re really concerned about more people crossing, your best bet would be to advocate for job creation programs in Mexico.

Finally, I’m not sure how some undocumented immigrants gaining legal rights in any way hurts or affects your status as a legal permanent resident.

3) Why don’t we just give them everything ELSE we’ve worked so hard for!
I was adopted from Italy years ago. And my parents had to spend time and money making me something I could be proud of.
And ” American Citizen.” It use to be an Honor to be an American Citizen. You use to have want it so bad you could tastes it.
Nowerdays Just dump the kid on the white houses door step say “I no speaka the english.” And wham! you an American Citizen. No questions asked.. But now They don’t have to work for it.

Nothing in this decision will make anybody an American Citizen. First of all. And many people who come to the U.S. without documents don’t want to be U.S. citizens–they simply want to come and work.

Second of all, there is nobody who came to this country without documents who didn’t work for it. Nobody. I’ve spent the past week in the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta, Sonora. We help people who have just been deported get back home and provide food, water, clothing and basic medical care. I’ve heard dozens of individuals stories, each distinct, but with many common elements. People generally pay thousands of dollars to hire a pollero to bring them to the U.S.–this in a country where making less than $30 a week is common in many central and southern states. People walk for a week or more through the brutal heat of the Arizona desert to come to the U.S., and thousands of them have died in the attempt over the past decade. So don’t tell me people don’t work for this.

I’m going to ignore the racism in the comment about people not speaking English, except to point out that the U.S. doesn’t have an official language. But it is currently the exact opposite of easy to become a U.S. citizen, or to even get legal permanent residency.

Finally, and again, I’m not sure how some people getting more legal rights in any way diminishes or cheapens your citizenship.

4) So Obama is giving 800,000 illegal immigrants work permits. All US citizens who are out of work or have to work part time should figuratively spit in Obama’s face, since he is spitting in yours.

Ah, the jobs argument. First of all, undocumented students who apply for deferred action still have to apply to get a work permit, and I highly doubt all 800,000 of them will qualify.

With regard to the larger jobs issue: this is a pervasive anti-immigration argument, but I think it’s fundamentally flawed. First of all, a work permit isn’t a guarantee of work, so all this would do is give some undocumented students the same chance that U.S. citizens have to apply for the few jobs that are out there. I personally don’t believe that U.S. citizenship should magically confer a person with any more of a right to work than a non-citizen resident would have.

Even if you disagree, though, I would again point to this article. Often, the consequence of undocumented workers being removed is that produce is left to rot in the fields. Many other standard complaints, like that immigrants don’t pay taxes, are patently absurd as well. Immigrants pay sales tax, and those who work under fake social security numbers pay into both Social Security and Medicare, without being able to benefit from either of those programs (effectively subsidizing the rest of us).

There’s been a longstanding argument that immigrants do jobs U.S. citizens aren’t willing to do, and I think that’s often true. But the counterargument to that–that if we enforced immigration laws and cracked down, wages in agricultural labor would rise–seems compelling as well. So what do we do?

I’m not an economist and I don’t have an answer to that. My support of immigration reform and more visas is rooted in human rights, not economic arguments. I believe people have a right to migrate where they want to and to be treated like human beings while doing so. That said, I think it’s worth pointing out what is made visible and what is made invisible when we talk about immigrants “stealing American jobs.” The rise in immigration over the past few decades, specifically to the U.S. from Mexico and other Latin American countries, is largely due to trade liberalization agreements. Agreements like NAFTA and organizations like the WTO have lifted many international barriers to trade in the name of efficiency. One effect of this has been the collapse of the rural Mexican economy for many small farmers, pushing them to migrate north. Another has been the shipping of U.S. jobs overseas, largely to Asia, where labor is cheaper.

Regardless of how you feel about trade liberalization, I think the anti-immigration argument overlooks the structural nature of free trade. It’s telling that those who decry the effect immigrants are supposedly having on the U.S. economy, notably Republican (and many Democratic) policymakers, are much more silent on the free trade agreements which encourage U.S. jobs to be shipped overseas, as well as the factors which push migrants to the U.S. These are all complicated economic questions with room for debate, but a knee-jerk, “They’re taking our jobs!” is not going to lead to sensible policy on this issue.

5) The president does not have the constitutional authority to do this. Congress makes the laws.

There’s a legitimate conversation to be had here about the limits of executive power, and there’s certainly a problematic history of presidents using executive actions and policy shifts to do what they want. However, while Congress does make the laws, it’s the executive branch’s job to enforce them. Part of that means prioritizing certain methods of enforcement over others, which to my mind, is exactly what this is doing. The President has decided that applying U.S. immigration laws to students who have been in the country for years is not the best use of the government’s resources. Given the impossibility of deporting all 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., I’d have to say I agree. (There’s another conversation to be had about the construction of “good” vs. “bad” immigrants as it relates to the DREAM Act, but I’ll save that for later.) In the fact of a Congress which has thus far failed to pass any immigration reform laws, I think this action was both warranted and necessary.

6) What Mr. Obama did is pure politics. What kind of leadership is that?


Have we elected President Romney today?

We might have. Everybody is focused on the every growing population of Hispanics and as an article in the Times mentioned this week, they are forgetting that it is 2012 and not 2050.There are still many more non-Hispanic voters than Hispanic voters. A lower percentage of Hispanic people vote than do whites and blacks.

First of all, non-citizens can’t vote in elections. Which means nobody who is directly affected by this policy can vote. As far as the larger Hispanic community goes, of course this is a political act. Because everything the president ever does is a political act. Because he’s a politician. It’s entirely possible that President Obama realized that same-sex couples should be able to get married of his own accord, and that’s awesome. But the decision to announce that at the time he did was a political act. Pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq was a political act, just as George’s Bush’s decision to invade was a political act.

Just because something is a political act doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or corrupt, or immoral, or shallow. Politicians are always going to consider the potential effects on voters when taking stands on issues. I would argue that they probably should consider that, since they’re elected to serve voters. That doesn’t mean that Obama’s action was only about getting votes, and it doesn’t make his action any more or less valid.

Finally, I would like to point out that Hispanic and Latin@ people are not and should not be the only people who care about this issue. There are plenty of people who are concerned about undocumented immigrants who support this action wholeheartedly. As much as I’m critical of Obama, and the entire U.S. political system, I’m happy that we were able to make this small step forward, and I trust that many of my fellow non-Hispanic/Latin@ and white Americans are as well.

There you have it. I think I touched on all the major arguments I saw in the comments, though if I missed any, somebody should let me know. Immigrant rights are human rights, and while stopping the deportation of students isn’t enough to solve the problem, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.