Illegal immigrants ‘are all over my house’

By Guest Contributor Tomas Summers Sandoval, cross-posted from Latino Like Me

Colin Powell appeared on “Meet the Press” (9/19/10) and spoke about a Republican party he described as “waiting to emerge once again,” a party of moderates who are more balanced in their approach to several issues, including immigration.

Here is the section of his interview where he responds to the opportunistic xenophobia that is currently the preferred stance on immigration within the GOP:

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In his varied defense of reforming this position, he presents an assortment of analytical assumptions, some aspects of which I find more than a little problematic or incomplete. For example, he bases part of his defense of “illegal immigration” on what we might label a utilitarian approach, arguing (in essence) that “we” need “them” to do the work that “we” need done. Powell also presents another fairly opportunistic analysis when he speaks directly to the concerns of an aging “baby boomer” population. He suggests that immigrants are the “lifeblood” of this nation, but he describes that lifeblood as an economic transfusion—the maintaining of a workforce (and implied tax base) to support an aging and retiring population of natives.

Such ways of interpreting the immigration issue are a form of progress on purely policy-oriented terms, since they can lead to a more “moderate” and more realistic immigration system, one that spends less time on criminalizing migrants than on finding pathways for their legal stability. However, they also further a mode of analysis which deprives immigrants of their right to be seen as something more than inanimate workers.

Immigrants have the right—the human right—to be seen and treated as people with desires, concerns, and needs. When we view them in these “disembodied” ways (that is, disconnecting their human selves from the values we derive from their physical selves) we create a context like we have today—where immigration policies promote inhumane forms of detention and removal and, in many cases, outright death.

Viewing immigrants as humans means acting in responsible ways. We all have a responsibility—and I would argue, this is both a moral and a legal responsibility—to recognize and safeguard everyone’s ability to fulfill their basic human needs.

I recognize this is a distinct way of understanding the “immigration issue.” It says the issue is bigger than whether or not it “benefits us” to allow them into “our” nation. It says the issue is, fundamentally, about viewing this nation as part of a larger whole, with an accompanying responsibility to act in deliberate humanistic ways.

Powell flirts with the kinds of understandings I support when he expresses the need for us to spend more effort educating “our minorities” and immigrants. Leaving along the paternalistic tone his choice of words suggests—and not at all discounting the ways his education argument can be interpreted as opportunistic—I view education as a fundamental human right. Education facilitates one’s ability to fulfill their basic human needs. It is intimately connected to a set of opportunities–to achieve meaningful social inclusion, to defend and maintain cultural rights, and to assure true participatory political power.

All this said, I welcome Powell’s stance and hope it gains more traction in our political debate. His vocal support of the Dream Act at this critical hour is the right thing to do. The same can be said for the ways he is promoting a more moderate way of approaching immigration reform. None of this is “perfect,” and it often falls short of true humanism, but who cares?

When we have people dying as a result of our policies there is a moral urgency to creating a policy context that is more just, even if that falls short of perfect.