Wednesday, May 30, 2007

When Common Sense Is Not All That Common

By Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III
t r u t h o u t | Guest Contributor

Tuesday 29 May 2007

In an attempt to rush a deal through, the US Senate has begun to debate the Secure Borders, Economic Opportunities and Immigration Reform Act of 2007 - the so-called comprehensive immigration reform. This is another clear example of how rhetoric, labels and partisanship are getting in the way of common sense. I guess in today's American politics, common sense is not all that common.

In earlier editorials, I have defined politics as the honest debate and resulting negotiations between interested factions or groups about the distribution of limited public resources. The problem with the immigration debate is that both sides are so focused on their own principles and ideals that neither side can be intellectually honest and deal with the realities and practicalities of the issues. Also, because of partisan divisions that have been created by the rhetoric and intolerance, compromise (the true basis and strength of politics) is seen as weakness.

Theoretically, we would love to be able to welcome everyone to "the land of the free and home of the brave." Theoretically, everyone should have a shot at the American dream. Practically, because of limited resources, limits must be place on the number of those who immigrate to this country. The United States is a country of laws, and not of men. Theoretically, all of those who have broken the law to enter this country or violated the law while in this country should be captured and punished. Practically and realistically, that is not going to happen. So, what do we do?

  • First and foremost, the borders must be secured. This is not some xenophobic paranoia of people from other countries. Practically, every country in the world needs to know who is entering the country, where they are coming from and why they are coming. There are health concerns, labor considerations and security issues that can't be ignored.

    The influx of immigration must be managed and controlled. That management should be based upon humanitarian concerns for all peoples of the world - the reality that people will travel and move to the United States in search of a better life - as well as the labor interests of the United States. If the United States can intercept international email traffic, listen to telephone conversations from all around the world, and use satellite imagery to see a flea on a fly's butt, why can't it secure its borders? One reason may be that maintaining a low-wage labor underclass in America is more important to business interests than real border security and national security. Up to this point, the border security proposals have been a farce.

  • Second, greater responsibility must be placed on businesses to validate that the people they hire are properly documented. I have watched too much video of immigration agents raiding worksites in this country, arresting undocumented workers and carting them off to detention centers for deportation, while the employers of those workers go unpunished. Until the penalty for hiring undocumented workers becomes greater than the penalty for being an undocumented worker, the circumstance will not change.

    By enforcing penalties on employers, you can decrease the number of illegal jobs available. This will dramatically decrease the number of undocumented workers coming to this country in search of jobs. By focusing on employers and forcing them to keep track of and report who they actually employ, you can focus on fairer wages being paid and track the taxes those workers and employers should be paying. But, if maintaining a low-wage labor underclass in America is more important to business interests and the legislators they control, the American people will never get balanced comprehensive immigration reform.

  • Third, America must take a hard look at its trade policy. As Noam Chomsky addresses in "Starving the Poor," for years, a goal of US foreign policy has been the creation of a global economy in which US corporations have unfettered access to markets, resources, investment opportunities and cheap labor. Inequities and injustices in US trade policy are creating circumstances in many countries, such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, that force people to flee. I think it is fair to say that most people will not risk life and limb to leave their homeland if they feel safe and secure there. US trade policy has exacerbated the circumstance that we call illegal immigration.

    According to Chomksy, "An unlevel-playing-field impact of NAFTA was to flood Mexico with highly subsidized agribusiness exports, driving Mexican producers off the land.... One-sixth of the Mexican agricultural work force has been displaced in the NAFTA years, a process that is continuing, depressing wages in other sectors of the economy and impelling emigration to the US."

If you don't want these workers in your country, don't create the circumstances that force them to flee their own. Finally, how do we practically address the more than 12 million or so people who are in this country on expired visas or never received a visa at all? First, enforce the laws that are currently on the books. Again, this is a country of laws, and those laws must be respected. As much as the conservatives hate to admit it, at the end of the day, we are not going to deport all of those who are here illegally. The only practical solution is to provide those people a sensible path to legal, permanent status. This can be done without penalizing those who have come here legally.

In spite of the rhetoric and disinformation campaigns, providing undocumented workers a path to legitimate work status that includes the payment of fines is not amnesty. Amnesty is defined as the act of an authority (as a government) by which a pardon is granted. A pardon is a release from the legal penalties of an offense. Therefore, requiring that undocumented workers pay fines and meet other criteria before they can receive work documents is not amnesty. This amnesty argument is patently dishonest.

This comes down to discussing the circumstances that impact the quality of life for human beings. The policies that develop from this debate need to provide real, honest solutions for where we are today, not to exacerbate the situation based on broken policies of the past. Supporters of reform must admit that those who broke the law to come to the United States must pay the penalty for their offenses. Those who are opposed to real reform must stop supporting the trade policies that are creating the circumstances that are driving too many victims of those policies into this country for sanctuary.

Rhetoric such as "amnesty," labels such as "illegals" and partisanship are getting in the way of common sense solutions to real human problems. I guess in today's American politics, common sense is not all that common.

Dr. Wilmer Leon is Producer/Host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program "On With Leon" on XM Satellite Radio Channel 169, Producer/Host of the television program "Inside The Issues With Wilmer Leon" and a teaching associate in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, DC. Go to or email:


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