Incremental Immigration Reform: Give the Undocumented a Voice

I am a political science professor at a Christian university, and I have seen the demographics of my classes change over the 20 years that I have been teaching. I care deeply about injustice, but one thing I have learned from students’ experiences is that I cannot speak on behalf of those who suffer unless I know them. And, when I know them I will understand issues of injustice differently.

This past semester I taught a Gender, Politics and Law class in which we focused in part on “voice.” For whom may I speak when I talk about law? Who will speak for me? The class was filled with students who were in some way connected to undocumented residents in the United States. These students have changed my perspective on immigration law and this impacts my view of the recently introduced Senate bill called ACHIEVE.

On Nov. 27, 2012, three Republican Senators introduced a new bill called the Assisting Children and Helping them Improve their Educational Value for Employment (ACHIEVE) Act. Outgoing Senators Kay Bailey Hutchinson from Texas and Jon Kyle from Arizona joined Arizona Senator John McCain in calling for a path to legal residency for people who were brought to this country by their parents before the age of 14. The bill does not provide a path to citizenship.

The ACHIEVE Act comes on the heels of several failed versions of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors). The DREAM Act was first proposed in 2001 by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and Democrat Senator Dick Durbin. It would have provided permanent residency and a path to citizenship for children brought to this country before the age of 16 as long as they were currently under the age of 35 and had been law-abiding with plans to join the military or attend at least two years of higher education. The bill failed in 2001 and was re-introduced in various versions over the course of the next decade, often drawing bipartisan support but never achieving a majority. All three Republican Senators introducing ACHIEVE have voted against DREAM legislation. Though ACHIEVE grants residency, without citizenship it does not lead to voting rights of those it targets.

Because the bill was introduced just weeks after Latino citizens voted overwhelmingly (more than 70 percent) to re-elect President Obama, many saw ACHIEVE as a political ploy by Republicans to gain favor with a demographic voting bloc. Democrats and immigration attorneys have called it a “sham.” But, even if it is political, I believe Christians on both sides of the political aisle should support ACHIEVE with enthusiasm.

 “… I have seen the demographics of my classes change over the 20 years that I have been teaching. “

“… I have seen the demographics of my classes change over the 20 years that I have been teaching. “

Most of us do not know what it is like to live with the fear that permeates the life of an undocumented family. Undocumented residents who are otherwise law-abiding lead lives of vulnerability and uncertainty. The Center for Disease Control cites studies reporting that some form of intimate partner violence occurs every three seconds in our country, and this pattern crosses all racial, ethnic, and economic communities. However, undocumented victims of domestic violence are rarely willing to involve law enforcement to secure protection. Those assaulted put up with it because they do not want to precipitate deportation proceedings against their family.

Family violence in our country is acute, but violence against workers is an even bigger problem. Students and professors at Seton Hall University Law School interviewed undocumented day laborers finding that 26 percent had been assaulted by their employers, and few of them had reported the assault to police. Undocumented workers also experience wage theft in significant numbers. States like Texas now criminalize “Theft of Service,” but again workers are reluctant to report crimes against them.

It is with this developing understanding of the fear of others that I now assess immigration reform. I have, in the past, been an advocate of comprehensive reform shunning piecemeal proposals as inadequate. I have also been quick to second guess proposals that seemed designed for political expediency rather than shaped with an eye toward the best kind of justice we should be working for. But, after meeting undocumented residents, I realize how silenced that community is. Any program that allows for legal residency will increase the number of people who can speak with knowledge and authority for those they know who live with danger. They can reveal injustices that today we only know in small part. And it is likely that they themselves will be the best advocates, the best voice, for an eventual path to citizenship.

Public justice requires that our policies address structural injustice in a comprehensive way. But, sometimes, the first step we take has to enable us to hear about the injustice from those who experience it.

—Julia K. Stronks has practiced law and is the Edward B. Lindaman Chair and Professor of Political Science at Whitworth University.