No Simple Solutions to Immigration Reform

This controversial issue shouldn't be about politics -- it's about people.
November 13, 2014
Children of illegal immigrants -- often raised in the U.S. from infancy -- can make it through the public education system without anyone knowing of their status, but then don't have the documentation to enter college or obtain a job. There is no simple solution for this situation. Shutterstock
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Even before Nov. 5, 2014, the day after the midterm elections, strenuous and sometimes Machiavellian efforts were underway as polling had, for some time, indicated major changes were ahead. Lame duck legislators were and are trying to make the most of the remaining days of the 113th Congress, while newcomers are setting the stage for the coming months and years.

Prognosticators and prophets are painting a picture of a different future that will come as a result of divergent priorities and perspectives. However, questions remain regarding the course of current policies and programs and how the anticipated changes (that most assuredly will come) will impact vulnerable individuals who are most fragile and sensitive to political shifts.
 
One of the first issues on the national agenda is immigration reform. President Obama promised to address this long-delayed and intensely controversial matter by executive order before the end of 2014. In response, newly empowered Congressional leaders vowed contravening action (if not all-out political warfare). Caught in the middle are immigrants, their families and the communities where they live and work. I have friends and associates who profess a firm belief that the answer is quite simple: close the border and deport everyone found to be without a valid visa. As usual in such cases, however, the solution is not that straightforward. 
 
During my first term as mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., federal authorities raided a local chicken processing plant and discovered a large number of illegal immigrants. The company was cooperative and many of the workers in question had falsified their status, so the authorities moved in quickly and deported the offenders. The problem with this swift and Draconian action was that it left the employees’ dependent family members with no means of financial support. Without legal status, the family members -- mostly women and children -- didn’t qualify for financial assistance and the heightened awareness of their illegal status meant the adults couldn’t get jobs. Except for a little help from churches and nonprofit organizations, they were stranded and alone.
 
The second example of setbacks associated with so-called simple solutions came a few years later. I had a meeting with local Hispanic pastors who confronted me with a serious problem that -- I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit -- had not previously registered with me. Children of illegal immigrants -- raised from infancy in the United States and some in my own city -- had managed to make it through the public school system without anyone knowing they and their families lacked legal U.S. citizenship. As these children matured, they were unable to get a job or go to college without proper documentation. The simple solution to “send them back to where they came from” obviously didn’t work in this situation, when the U.S. was the only home these children had ever known.
 
We managed to muddle through these cases, but the fact that simple solutions often fail to consider specific circumstances and the lives of human beings was not lost on those of us on the front lines who were trying to handle this harsh reality. I know many individuals with firm stances on immigration, some that are steadfast in their belief, but I do sincerely hope that most people are not so cold hearted that they would intentionally do harm to innocent children because they do not acknowledge the complexities of what they see as simple solutions. 
 
Back in the 1970s, Chattanooga -- like many cities -- served as the new home for families that sought refuge in the United States from the disruptions and distressful situations affecting Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia. One family came to our community, crowded into a small apartment and somehow acquired a sewing machine that was their sole means of support. They worked night and day on shifts to keep the little machine humming to scrape together a meager living. Their small daughter entered public elementary school with absolutely no knowledge of our language and culture -- and yet within a few months she established herself as an exceptional scholar and came within a whisker of winning the national spelling bee -- not the local contest, mind you, the national competition.
 
All that is to say this: Often we forget where we came from. Oh, there are some who can claim Native American heritage, but the rest of us are prone to spend time and sometimes serious money tracing our blood lines back to another place and another time. We brag incessantly and embellish colorful stories about how our ancestors came to America with nothing more than a few dollars and the clothes on their back. Cities proudly sponsor parades and festivals celebrating the multicultural communities that most of us enjoy. Still, somehow, immigration and particularly illegal immigration is a hot political issue. Were our ancestors -- our great-great grandmothers and grandfathers -- “legal”?
 
It is often said, but it bears saying one more time, that we are a nation of immigrants. It was the undying hope for a better life and a willingness to work hard by those who came before us that enabled this nation to succeed. Many times, it is cities and local government that must deal with this problem firsthand and find a way through the Byzantine maze of bureaucracy toward a satisfactory conclusion. It is not too much to hope that many current stories of immigration might ultimately have as happy of an ending as that of our own forbearers (legal or not) or that special Cambodian family with a strong work ethic and a brilliant daughter.
 
It's not a liberal issue and it's not a conservative issue -- it’s a people issue. As such, it is an issue that cannot be further ignored. The new political leadership owes us more than entertaining partisan battles and unrealistically simple solutions. The lives of families and the livelihood of communities are at stake. 
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