USA TODAY US Edition
Depolarizing the immigration debate
The reason we’ve seen the immigration pendulum swing so wildly is that Congress and the White House have been unable to fix our nation’s broken system.
Not that long ago, part of my morning routine involved catching up on what states were doing that day to crack down on illegal immigration.
That habit started in 2010, when Arizona passed a law empowering state police to enforce immigration laws. One by one, other states followed suit. Utah. Indiana. South Carolina. Alabama wanted to check the immigration status of children enrolling in its public schools. Georgia was so successful driving out undocumented immigrants that it turned to prison labor to harvest its abandoned crops, a plan that quickly failed once prisoners started walking off the job.
Then, something changed. Those laws started getting struck down in courts. Others states halted their efforts to pass Arizona copycat bills. And before I knew it, I was drinking my morning glass of orange juice while reading through articles about local efforts to make life easier for undocumented immigrants.
The most interesting of those efforts has been a push to provide local identification cards to undocumented immigrants. The idea is simple: A city or county creates a “municipal ID” that those immigrants can use to interact with city officials, identify themselves to police officers and even open bank accounts so they’re not easy, cash-carrying targets for would-be robbers. The IDs aren’t substitutes for driver’s licenses or federally accepted forms of ID — for example, you can’t get through security at an airport or board a flight with one.
The number of cities approving such IDs has surged in recent months, including Hartford, Conn., Newark, N.J., Greensboro, N.C., and New York.
The wave of cities adopting municipal IDs doesn’t mean the whole country has suddenly turned immigrant-friendly. Just tune in to the next Republican presidential debate to see how many candidates are proposing mass deportations, cutting down on legal immigration channels and missile-firing drone patrols along the southwestern border. Or watch as states try to crack down on sanctuary city policies within their borders.
What the cities adopting municipal IDs show is that there may be a middle ground in the immigration debate that has been so polarized in recent years. On the one side, we had states like Arizona passing laws to go after undocumented immigrants. On the other, we had cities and counties like San Francisco adopting “sanctuary city” policies that have allowed some undocumented immigrants with violent, criminal backgrounds to walk free.
The reason we’ve seen that pendulum swing so wildly is that Congress and the White House have been unable to fix our nation’s broken immigration system. That’s why millions of undocumented immigrants continue to arrive. That’s why millions of legal immigrants can stay in the country long past the time their visas have expired. And that’s why Americans can continue hiring those undocumented immigrants with little fear of punishment.
What’s left is a system that has effectively allowed 11 million undocumented immigrants to stay in the country. And no matter whom you blame, those foreigners have been left in a legal limbo that makes life incredibly difficult for them.
Take Rosana Araújo, an Uruguayan who visited Miami on a three-month visa 13 years ago and never went back. Araújo has spent her years here cleaning houses, warehouses, day care centers, whatever she could do to get by. But the 47-year-old said the fact that her only form of identification is her Uruguayan passport has made her life difficult in so many ways.
She can’t use a public library. She can’t get past the security desk of hospitals to visit sick relatives or friends. She said she couldn’t even return a pair of pants at Walmart because they insisted on a Florida ID card.
Most important, Araújo said she didn’t call police after she was sexually assaulted in 2009 because she had heard from other undocumented immigrants who had been victims of sexual violence that they were caught up in immigration proceedings after reporting the crime.
“The first thing they do is ask for your identification. And the passport for them isn’t valid,” she said. “That makes you far more vulnerable.”
Now Araújo is helping several groups push Miami-Dade County agencies to adopt the municipal IDs. The Center for Popular Democracy, a group that advocates for immigrant rights, estimates that two dozen cities, including Phoenix, New Orleans and Milwaukee, are considering adopting the program
Municipal IDs won’t solve our immigration problem. But they just might be the best shortterm solution to ensure undocumented immigrants aren’t completely helpless as we all wait for Washington to find a solution.