Fury has arisen in the House over the possibility of giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship—or of giving them anything, for that matter. Representatives have claimed this would unfairly reward unlawful behavior. Yet questions of fairness take on an entirely new meaning when we consider what has been taken from this population.
If we really are a "nation of immigrants" and there is in fact such a thing as the American Dream, we ought to get beyond simply casting moral judgment on the legal transgressions of individual immigrants and confront the immoralities that form the basis of our immigration system. Consider the following examples:
The private prison industry has profited immensely from dramatic increases in immigrant detention—increases that have taken place despite research showing immigrants commit less crime in their communities than native-born U.S. residents. This industry has spent millions of dollars on lobbying in order to ensure immigration laws remain punitive so their prisons remain "well stocked."
Politicians, as I have written elsewhere—including some of the House members who are now seeking to block reform—have reaped the political benefits of scapegoating immigrants. With local economies in peril and constituents yearning for someone to blame, many have used myths about immigrant criminality and fiscal burdensomeness to draw attention away from failed economic policy, often finding themselves catapulted into higher office as a result.
Latinos living in the U.S., regardless of immigration status, have also been stripped of their basic dignity. In the wake of harsh laws passed across the country, social science studies have shown an increase in discrimination and police harassment. Calling into question claims that these laws have nothing to do with race or ethnicity, one such study found the best predictor of being mistreated by immigration authorities is simply "appearing Mexican."
Finally, undocumented immigrants have been ruthlessly exploited and controlled. Rarely are they justly rewarded for their labor, and their precarious position leaves many in a perpetual state of fear . Under these circumstances, filing grievances is less likely, and, as a result, employers may take full advantage of this population with little consequence.
In conclusion, a path to citizenship is not a handout. It is merely a stipulation saying that someday you may be freed from this oppression. The real handout—the privilege of some to continue to take money, political power, status, and control from marginalized populations with impunity—will be given if we fail to pass meaningful reform.
Jamie Longazel is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Dayton where he conducts research on immigration law and politics. This post is based on an article he published earlier this year in the journal Sociology Compass, entitled Subordinating Myth: Latino/a Immigration, Crime, and Exclusion.