Comprehensive Immigration Reform Introduced: Just in Time?

June 23, 2011

A boys shows a US flag as President Barack Obama speaks on immigration at the Chamizal National Memorial on May 10, 2011 in El Paso, Texas. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Yesterday, without any fanfare, Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Harry Reid (D-NV), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) and John Kerry (D-MA) introduced the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2011,” a bill that includes a legalization program and incorporates two important pieces of legislation, the Dream Act and AgJobs.

One hopes this will stop the discriminatory condemnation of immigrants by legislators all over the country. However, if the Act does not directly address the discrimination intrinsic to the whole immigration system, it may serve as a band-aid, but it won’t likely stop human rights abuses of suspected undocumented immigrants.

For example, this week the Texas Senate passed a bill harsher than Arizona’s SB 1070 and it is scheduled for a vote in the Texas House. Rebecca Forest, founder of the Immigration Reform Coalition of Texas, abandoned all semblance of respect and civility by launching an attack not at undocumented immigrants, but at legislators of Hispanic descent. Forest complained:

“If you want to know why we can’t pass legislation in Texas it’s because we have 37, no 36, Hispanics in the Legislature. All of the states that have passed legislation have a handful, and I mean literally, some of them have NO Hispanic legislators, well, maybe 3 or 5 or something. So that’s, umm, part of our problem and we need to change those numbers.”

Forest’s comments reflect a growing minority of vocal politicians around the country who are not afraid to express their prejudice publicly. Earlier this week, we reported on a Massachusetts state representative who made statements favoring impunity for rapists over protection for immigrant survivors.

Also this week, Senator John McCain made unsubstantiated claims that undocumented persons set forest fires in Arizona. While a vigorous debate around any issue is to be expected, one would expect each side to maintain a degree of civility and respect, or at the very least, refrain from blatant discrimination. This is not the state of the current immigration debate.

Amnesty International is hopeful that the Act introduced today will turn on a switch and that the majority of Americans who support immigration reform will stand up to organizations and individuals whose approach to immigration is fueled by discrimination against Latinos and other people of color.

However, a constructive conversation will require legislation that is credible not only to citizens, but to immigrants as well. To achieve this, laws must fairly remove undocumented immigrants from the shadow economy and from the power of abusive employers and traffickers. An acknowledgment that a transparent legalization program respecting human rights will benefit individual immigrants and the country is necessary. And it is imperative that CIR does not place immigrants at greater risk of abuse.

Amnesty opposes anti-immigrant legislation and policies in general, and will continue to focus on the substance of the issues. We urge politicians and activists around the country to rise above petty attacks that spread hate, anger, and racism. People have migrated since the beginning of time and as the vast separation between the richest few and the majority poor continues to grow, migration will continue.

Human rights abuses can be both a cause and a consequence of the decision to immigrate. Abject poverty may prompt immigrants to leave their country of origin in the hope of realizing their economic and social rights, but they may experience different human rights abuse in the U.S., including arbitrary arrest and detention, denial of labor rights, and in a growing number of states, the denial of equal access to education and health services. The interdependence and indivisibility of human rights means that the denial of one right can often lead to or accompany other abuses. So, for example, inadequate and abusive conditions of detention may seriously compromise an immigrant’s right to health; forced eviction from housing may expose an immigrant to exploitation, abuse on the streets or to arbitrary detention.

It is deeply regrettable that the U.S. immigration debate has been framed with little or no focus on the human rights of immigrants. On the contrary, misinformation, prejudice and fear have often characterized the discussion. Through the introduction of Senator Menendez’s legislation, the U.S. has the potential to move into a new discussion of CIR.

Amnesty International hopes that the human rights of immigrants will remain central to all debates, all amendments, and all statements made on the floors of Congress.