This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Kavitha RajagopalanBack to OpinionKavitha Rajagopalan

The border is a state of mind

Just when we thought party affiliation was the biggest wedge between our people, along comes the immigration debate. Now, according to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, there are citizens not of the United States but of individual states.

“This fight is far from over,” said Brewer, following a federal district court injunction against some provisions of an Arizona bill designed to seek out, deport and keep out unauthorized immigrants from the state. “In fact, it is just the beginning, and at the end of what is certain to be a long legal struggle, Arizona will prevail in its right to protect our citizens,” she said.

All over the country, some applaud and some lob rotten tomatoes at federal judge Susan Bolton and the Obama administration for blocking some parts of Arizona’s controversial new “immigration law,” which just went into effect yesterday. According to President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and Judge Bolton, only the federal government has the authority to make immigration policy and the responsibility to guard our national borders. Meanwhile, government officials in border states from Florida to California, and some inland states like Colorado, have expressed support for Arizona’s efforts to “protect its citizens” from the purported economic and social costs of illegal immigration and announced their intention to introduce similar legislation in their own state government bodies.

Officials in border states claim that they bear disproportionate burden in absorbing and policing undocumented migrants and have the right to develop legal responses as they see fit. But while the current legal battle is being fought on the federal versus states rights battlefield, unauthorized immigration raises much bigger questions than who has the right to stem it.

In 2007, the Council on Foreign Relations published a powerful report demonstrating that illegal immigration happens not because of poor border policies and protections, but because it makes good economic sense to both unauthorized immigrants and U.S. employers. Unless the U.S. can develop legal immigration options that give immigrants the security and flexibility they desire and employers the low-cost labor they demand, unauthorized immigration will continue to rise.

In other words, unauthorized immigration is actually good for the U.S. economy.

Of course, these are bold and contentious words. No one can argue that a system that enables and institutionalizes massive human rights violations and widespread criminal enterprise is good for the U.S. Neither can anyone safely claim that permanently driving down wages is economically sustainable. But as we enter into the conversation about how to and who should reform the immigration system, we have to ask ourselves some hard philosophical and economic questions.

In the last decade, the unauthorized immigrant population has more than doubled from five million to an estimated 12 million. Why are there so many undocumented immigrants in our country? Why does our economy rely on a permanent labor underclass with no civil or political rights? Will policing the border and erecting deeper social barriers between citizens, immigrants and unauthorized immigrants really stem unauthorized immigration?

The overwhelming majority of Americans agree that legal immigration is good for the country and illegal immigration is bad. This is too simple a dichotomy. In the current, deeply traumatized immigration system, it is much harder to become a legal immigrant than it was 30 years ago. There are fewer protections for low-skilled American workers and very narrow, clogged immigration channels for low-skilled immigrants. The American economy has undergone drastic shifts and the immigration system has failed to shift with it. The more we obsess about the legal status of immigrants the less we look at the very real, very deep flaws in our conception of immigration.

The border is a state of mind. Instead of reducing the immigration debate to simple us-versus-them arguments or giving into border anxieties, we must begin to think about who our immigrants are, how they come, where they work and why they stay. And this will force us to figure out what we have to do.