News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Supreme Court decision paves the way for immigration reform

Is it identity theft when an undocumented worker uses a fake Social Security number to get a job? On May 4, 2009 the United States Supreme Court unanimously said, “No.”

Identity theft, which carries a two-year mandatory prison term, is the crime of using stolen credit cards and other personal information to purchase goods and drain bank accounts. That’s very different than an undocumented immigrant using a bogus Social Security number to obtain honest work. The high court’s recent ruling justly recognized this difference of intent -- a distinction deliberately blurred by hard-line nativists eager to portray all undocumented workers as wanton criminals. Some Bush administration officials seemed to ignore the difference as well.

Undocumented workers rounded up in workplace raids under the Bush-led Homeland Security Department were often charged with identity theft to negotiate guilty pleas to lesser charges. In hearing the case of Ignacio Carlos Flores-Figueroa, a Mexican immigrant arrested at a steel plant in East Moline, Illinois, the high court put an end to this misuse of the 2004 identity theft law.

The Supreme Court’s decision is grounded on solid legal principle. Working without a visa is not a crime at all. It’s civil violation, like jaywalking or simple speeding. Yet the uproar from the nativist fringe to people simply seeking honest work is grossly out of proportion to the offense. Over 100,000 drivers are fined for speeding in the U.S. each day. When was the last time you heard speeders referred to as “criminals and parasites”? What sensible person would equate jaywalkers with “murderers, baby rapers [sic] and molesters”? Sadly, this kind of venom is an everyday staple on many right-wing radio shows and websites. I think the motivation behind these hysterical accusations is abundantly clear.

Perhaps most laughable is the nativist contention that undocumented workers using fake Social Security numbers are cheating U.S. taxpayers. Just like any other employee, undocumented workers using bogus IDs have taxes, Social Security and Medicare deducted from their paychecks. But as non-residents, the undocumented will never collect a single cent of these deductions. As a result, undocumented workers contribute billions each year to fatten the coffers of Social Security and Medicare. So in reality, it’s U.S. taxpayers who come out ahead in this bargain.

More importantly, under the Obama administration, immigration law enforcement is changing from prosecuting workers to the real source of undocumented immigrants: employers who willingly hire them. This approach is not only more humane, it’s also more effective. Busting employers who exploit undocumented workers will do more to end their influx than workplace raids ever could. The reasons are twofold.

First, it’s jobs that are drawing the undocumented across the border. Most demographers agree the number of undocumented workers in the U.S. has actually declined over the last 18 months as the American economy has slowed. (And contrary to nativist claims, the undocumented cannot get government assistance of any kind. So it’s not U.S. public largesse drawing them here.) Second, workplace raids do not deter most undocumented workers. According to the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego, workers who had experienced a work-site raid during their last stay in the United States were more likely to plan a return trip north than those who had not.

Going after employers who knowingly hire the undocumented provides an important economic benefit as well. It will stop the exploitation of unskilled workers and raise their wages to fair market values. This will ultimately benefit all U.S. workers.

The Supreme Court’s Flores-Figueroa decision brings an element of reason long missing from the immigration debate. Honest work is not a crime. Those who portray it otherwise betray their xenophobic motives. The U.S. Congress must muster the political will to act on behalf of reason over prejudice in passing immigration reform. In clearing away past injustices in the prosecution of undocumented workers, the high court’s decision helps pave the way to a rational national policy to deal with the millions of undocumented workers drawn here by the prospects of providing a better life for their families.

The United States needs comprehensive immigration reform that includes a guest worker program; not simply because it is just and humane but because it makes economic sense. We cannot let the amnesty screamers prevent us from fixing the nation’s broken immigration system and ending the exploitation of unskilled workers. There is too much at stake to be deterred by the bleating of people so blinded by fear and loathing they cannot distinguish between jaywalking and murder.