Haven’t we seen from European history what walls do and how they divide us as people of one world? Whatever barriers are built, however high they are or long they run, they will not keep people out, despite the inflammatory anti-immigration rhetoric you hear from presidential contenders. Walls are just one more impediment on the path to a steady paycheck.
First, let’s take a moment to think about the fact that millions of people across the world look at our country with envy, aspire to live in the golden state of California and fancy a life in our city of San Francisco. California is home to more than 2.67 million undocumented immigrants, and about 30,000 of them live in San Francisco. These are people who left their homes and countries and surmounted tremendous odds to cross our shores.
So, the question to ask is: How do we stem this tide of wall-jumping, and does enforcement work?
“It’s a regional problem,” Bill Hing, law professor at the University of San Francisco, tells me emphatically. Canada and Mexico must work in concert with the United States in order to reduce the flow of people from the south. And to do that, the U.S. must play a role in investing and improving the economy of its neighbors for any lasting and sustainable resolution.
We also need to find solutions within our borders, and the best way to deal with illegal immigration within the U.S., Hing says, is to provide temporary work visas to people who can land jobs here and leave when their visas expire. In other words, lowering that border wall — if not tearing it down.
Anti-immigrant groups have typically demanded increased security and enforcement as an essential — if not the only — answer to our border problem. But I wonder if enforcement should be part of the solution at all. I believe enforcement acts like another wall we erect within our communities.
In January, there were rumors of raids being conducted by the Department of Homeland Security against families from Central America who had entered the country illegally. Through social media, the rumors began to acquire wings with reported immigration agent sightings at an elementary school in the Mission district, at a Mi Pueblo Food Center and at a Home Depot location. The rumors turned out to be false but generated a state of outrage and panic.
Enforcement serves to criminalize political and economic refugees and creates mistrust between law enforcement, immigration enforcers and the community. While the intent is to deter unlawful entering, the result of increased enforcement has been a spike in the number of lawsuits against the DHS and no real reduction in our unauthorized population.
In his book, “Ethical Borders: NAFTA, Globalization and Mexican Migration,” Hing gives the example of 6-year-old U.S. citizen Kebin Reyes, who was rounded up and detained along with his father, Noe Reyes, for more than 10 hours “with only bread and water” at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing center in San Francisco. Noe Reyes’ pleadings to have his child sent home were ignored. Finally, the boy was picked up by an uncle and taken home. The American Civil Liberties Union later filed a lawsuit on Kebin’s behalf.
There are 30,095 cases pending in San Francisco Immigration Court as of January 2016. And this number is only growing.
“San Francisco is doing a relatively good job with dealing with the [backlog of immigration cases] situation,” Hing tells me. The City has funded and appointed 13 attorneys to represent unauthorized immigrants, including children, who are facing deportation. San Francisco was one of the first cities in California to make this move.
There are a number of service providers who are especially conscientious about taking on cases and providing legal assistance to families of immigrants. Among these are the University of San Francisco, La Raza Centro Legal, Dolores Street Community Services and Legal Services for Children.
Additionally, Hing attributes the diligence of immigration judges and the Asylum office to be representative of San Francisco’s open, just and compassionate environment. Immigration judges can grant asylum, as can the Asylum Office, and “those entities in San Francisco have a reputation for being fair,” Hing asserts.
This illustrates just how profoundly vulnerable our city’s unauthorized residents are to how we interpret the law and how empathetic our legal system is.
We must recognize most immigrants scale the wall into the U.S. to work and not to collect a welfare check and not to rob or steal. It’s about the approach to the issue. If we look at illegal immigration as a humanitarian problem, then our solutions are going to be vastly different from that of those who look at immigrants as criminal elements out to take advantage of us.
Let’s keep in mind that undocumented immigrants come to America to make a decent living and to escape from brutal violence in their home countries. Any barriers we erect are dangerous and are bound to cause more human suffering.
Jaya Padmanabhan is the editor of India Currents, www.indiacurrents.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.