Present debates completely obscure the distinction and ignore the fact that a large majority of undocumented Latino persons in the U.S. never intended to stay here. Most would like to simply come and go to find work for a time so they may provide a better living for their families and villages back home. Present law makes such migration impossible.
In order to migrate into the U.S. from the south persons must cross the U.S. Mexico border. In the last 10 to 12 years such a crossing has become more dangerous and more expensive. In the 2004-05 fiscal year, 279 persons have died coming to "America" according to official records; this figure does not account for all deaths. Many migrants who planned to come and work for a time and return home have become unintentional immigrants; they dare not return home because they know the perils of crossing the border today.
The reason the risks have increased is that the Immigration and Naturalization Service and its successor, the Department of Homeland Security, through the Border Patrol, have built miles of fences, installed listening and video monitoring devices along the border and deployed aircraft, horsemen, cyclists, and armed vehicles to discover and apprehend migrants. The fences and monitoring equipment have forced the migrants to go farther and farther into the deserts to begin their journey. The result has been escalating deaths of men, women and children from scorching heat and freezing cold, injury, snake and insect bites, and animal attacks. The trek across the desert takes three to seven days, a journey that requires carrying enough food and water for the trip, an impossible task as adequate water for the trip often weighs more than the person.
Once a person has made that journey, he or she is reluctant to ever make it again because of the danger. Economics also plays a role. Increased surveillance creates greater risk for those who aid the migrants in their journey. A practice that was once made up of families with deep connections to villages is increasingly becoming the enterprise of organized, well-funded criminal elements who do not depend on their reputations for business. Unlike the families who were assisting friends and relatives, the organizations are in it purely for the money. So the migrant feels a greater threat on two fronts: the imposing U.S. militarization and the growing criminal crossing system.
Few of us who work on immigration issues believe in throwing the borders open. That is no more practical than the attempt to completely close them off. Nor is it likely that most U.S. citizens would find closing the borders suitable. We simply depend too extensively on migrant labor to support our more and more ravenous lifestyles.
Reform we need, but, if we are serious about immigration reform, we will recognize the distinction between migrant and immigrant. Once the distinction is made, we can reform the law to make migration possible while still protecting our borders from terrorists. Senators Kennedy and McCain have introduced legislation that goes a long way toward writing the distinction into law. Under their legislation, migrants already in the U.S. would be able to acquire a worker visa by paying a fine for crossing illegally (that is not amnesty). Through that law we would have a means to know who is in the country, where they are and for whom they have worked. Today, we know none of that about the 12 or so million who are here undocumented. Knowing who they are would leave resources to track those who do not want to be found out because they wish us harm.
Second, the law provides for new work visas for persons who wish to migrate, thus assuring that our appetite for their labor will be met as others return home for a while. With the new work visas, there will be less pressure on the border a fact that will free up more money to spend on real security threats like hurricanes.
Let's be reasonable and do the right thing for us and for the migrant laborer who wants to come here to work for us and support his family.
Dr. Parrish W. Jones is a Minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Washington, DC. He has served as a volunteer in mission with Presbyterian Border Ministry, led numerous mission/study groups to the Mexican border, and volunteered with the Border Working Group, a coalition of faith-based organizations, to advocate for more humane border policy. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This story was published on December 16, 2005.