Since September 11, 2001, immigration opponents have
honed their "immigrant as criminal" narrative, knowing
that the specter of the foreign terrorist works
Fifteen years ago, the nation's major newspapers
refused to use "illegal" because it was dehumanizing
and inaccurate. Today, the media employs the term in
the context of an immigration debate in which
immigrants themselves have little voice, and in which
their full humanity appears to have little value.
September 11th marked a shift in the politics of race
and immigration that prevents us from adopting a plan
for legalization, much less overhauling our very broken
system to benefit either the United States or
Currently, the Obama administration is following a
purely enforcement approach to immigration, though they
have promised investigation into racial profiling and
human rights abuses in workplace raids and the 287(g)
program that deputizes and trains local police
departments in enforcing immigration law.
Last week, 500 organizations wrote to President Obama
urging him to end the controversial 287(g) program.
But, despite the national outcry against local
officials like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Arizona official
accused of rounding up Latinos and checking papers
later, Homeland Security czar Janet Napolitano has
expanded the 287(g) program.
While promoting our book about the organizing of New
York City immigrant restaurant workers who lost their
jobs at the World Trade Center on September 11th, my
co-author and I met dozens of people who have suffered
from the enforcement-only approach.
There were the 18-year-olds brought to the country as
children who cannot now work or study legally. There
was the group in Minnesota working to keep open an
affordable housing complex whose best leader and his
wife were carted off at 5 o'clock in the morning,
leaving their 4-year-old son behind. There was a young
man desperately trying to find his friend who had been
taken by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to
an unspecified detention center.
Immigrants do more than work. They raise families; they
organize to improve life for the poor; they learn new
skills and build communities. Yet, they are typically
treated as expendably "illegal" even if they aren't.
Comprehensive immigration reform would leave the
enforcement approach in place, while changing the
status of millions of undocumented people. But a little
bit of legalization won't cancel out the negative
effects of enforcement. Twenty years from now, the
undocumented population will grow again, and we will
again debate how much legalization to offer.
The traditional pro-immigrant response to
restrictionists has been to characterize immigrants as
hard workers simply looking for a decent living. Though
more benevolent, this narrative suggests that
immigrants offer nothing more than a pair of hands
available for picking, cleaning and writing computer
The economic argument is not the only reason we need an
entirely new system. The one we have is terribly
broken, especially for the vast majority of poor
immigrants and immigrants of color. We need a system
that eases people's movement rather than restricts it
(thereby equalizing the power of immigrants in relation
to their employers), one that isn't fixated on
preserving some outdated notion of America as simply a
white, Christian country.
Until such time as immigration reform heats up again in
Congress, we must reclaim the debate and change our
language. For instance, we should be challenging the
criminalization of undocumented workers by labeling
them "illegal." Beyond this, we need to stand up for
full inclusion of immigrants in our educational, health
and labor systems. The struggle includes all
immigrants, including those who gave their lives at the
World Trade Center on September 11th.
Rinku Sen and Fekkak Mamdouh co-authored The Accidental
American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of
Globalization (Berrett-Koehler 2008). Rinku Sen is the
executive director of Applied Research Center and
publisher of ColorLines. Fekkak Mamdouh is the co-
director of Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC)-
United. Mamdouh lost 73 friends on September 11th
alongside whom he worked at Windows on the World, the
restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center.