Column: We need a reformed immigration policy


Tony Cheramie, political science junior


Nearly 150 years ago, the highest court in a liberal democratic nation ruled that African-Americans were never meant to enjoy individual freedoms enumerated in America’s constitution.

On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which held that African-Americans, whether enslaved or free, could not be considered American citizens and had no standing to sue in federal court. The implications for such an extensive exclusion of our fellow Americans are numerous and predictably disastrous.

We were reminded of just how extensive this oppressive regime was with the cinematic rendition of Solomon Northup’s classic, “12 Years a Slave.”

Imagine for a moment, the constant fear of lynching, deportation or general ill-will by your peers based solely on the melanin content of your ancestors and the social implications you’d encounter. I know, it’s difficult.

What does a privileged, young white man really know about the moral and legal subjugation, human bondage and disenfranchisement a slave culture imposes? I can vote, petition the government in court and receive federal subsidies to attend this very university – all without the fear of racial bias or deportation – something that the Supreme Court justices who decided Dred Scott expressly forbade for similar young men.

Due to my obvious privilege, I could never suffer a similar injustice; however, this does not make me blind or indifferent to similar lapses in justice today.

By some twist of fate, my housemate, academic colleague and best friend is an illegal immigrant from Vera Cruz, Mexico. This profoundly inspiring young woman has a GPA much higher than my own, yet she cannot vote.

She is more involved and driven than myself, but cannot receive federal financial aid like I do.

She is not a citizen. She does not exist. She is not a person, according to the U.S. Congress.

Except, she does. I live with her. She inspires me, I play with her cat. Yet if you looked for her in any database it would be in vain. Why is this? And what can I do about it? I think historical context is key here.

The opinion dictated in Dred Scott ignited the abolitionist movement even further, influenced the nomination of Abraham Lincoln to the Republican Party, his subsequent election, and led to a constitution crisis over the expansion of slavery and extension of civil rights to slaves and Freemen. However, like nearly every constitutional crisis America faced, the results of this controversy were not only political, but had swift and lasting consequences on future economic and social development.

Economists of the time postulated that the uncertainty about the expansion westward of slavery and the socio-political conflict similar to Bleeding Kansas immediately gripped the markets, reduced speculative land investment, caused railroad companies to collapse and the near-destruction of several other large banks.

Citizenship and the equal protection it implies was eventually granted to African Americans and permanently enshrined in the 14th and 15th amendments.

This is not dissimilar to the primitive, backlogged immigration system in America today, which prevents immigrant tax-payers from receiving the same equal protection without fear of deportation.

Unlike the turmoil experienced in the middle of the 19th century – only resolved by bloody war and a constitutional amendment – the current travesty of justice can be solved by the passage of one bill by one house of Congress.

Passed by the Senate in 2013, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 simply needs to be passed by a Republican controlled House of Representatives to become law. Better still, the Chamber of Commerce, a pro-business lobbying organization that tends to support Republicans, favors a reform passage along with a majority of the Democratic Caucus, according to The Washington Post.

Now, the bill doesn’t please everyone, but its passage could provide a victory for those who have been working on the issue and watched immigration reform fail six years ago.

It addresses legal immigration, a pathway to citizenship, border security and an employer hiring and entry-exit system so the government knows if foreign nationals leave the country when their visa expires.

The path to amnesty is long – likely 13 years or more – and arduous, but advocates are thrilled that it would exist at all, given opposition from many Republicans and the failure of previous bills to carve out such a path.

However, a disturbing trend is coming out of the discussions in the House of Representatives, which provides only for “legal status” where immigrants would be fined, allowed to drive, and able to pay taxes effectively, but not vote or petition the government.

Dreamers, young illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, would be able to earn green cards in five years, as would some agricultural workers, according to Politico. The essential part here being that eventually these refugees could upgrade to citizenship – amnesty. But this requires something very rare these days – political engagement by unaffected citizens.

These workers, students and tax-payers, are designated to third-class status the same way black Americans were treated after Dred Scott. People like my housemate are refused the security of Social Security benefits, and have families denied upward mobility by ineligibility to federal programs like Head Start and financial aid. They live under constant fear of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sword of Damocles.

The benefits of a reformed immigration and amnesty policy could mirror economic expansion after the Dred Scott reversal, and could spare us the social tension and flourish of racism. The consequences of not acting could lead us down a terrible path of sectionalism and bitterness – a new Jim Crow.

Instead of drudging on and using immigration as a political battering ram, which further contributes to Washington’s dysfunction, why not pass the bill?

Every poll, regardless of party affiliation, shows widespread support for such a measure and for good reason. Years of future resentment could be avoided if the lessons Dred Scott provides can be applied.

Let us end the culture of exclusion and avoid a social and constitutional crisis that is likely to ensue if we choose to do nothing. Call your senators; call your congressmen and women. Our constitution either demands, “equal protection under the law,” or it does not.

Tony Cheramie is a political science junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]

A United States border patrol agent processes immigrants at the Arizona-Mexico border. Arizona’s immigration policy is one of the strictest in the United States. (Courtesy of The Associated Press)