U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials walked onto Texas A&M campus in October 2007, approached Walter Sosa, an engineering technology major, handcuffed him and took him away to await deportation in a facility in Houston.
Sosa came to the U.S. at the age of 5 from Guatemala with his parents. They stayed past their visa expiration date and lived as illegal immigrants. Sosa's cause was taken up unofficially by faculty, administrators and students at A&M who sent letters and faxes to immigration officials.
He was granted a stay of deportation, which allows him to complete his studies at A&M before he is deported to Guatemala. His father already returned to their native country, though his mother is allowed to stay to look after his U.S.-born sister until she turns 18.
Sosa's situation and the failure of the DREAM Act to pass through the U.S. Senate brought the immigration issue to A&M. Diego von Vacano, assistant professor of political science, teaches courses on Latin American and race political theory.
"[The DREAM Act is] supported by a lot of people [since it allows] students who came here illegally to finish their studies. Sen. [John] McCain and others have supported this act," he said.
Von Vacano said it is not an invalid argument, primarily because it was the parents of the immigrants who made the choice to come to the U.S., and the children should not be held accountable.
"In this case the student [Sosa] is emblematic of of that idea: that people who are young, who are here illegally, are not here of their choosing," he said. "They did not make the decision to be here, and if they have shown to be lawful, industrious and studious, the argument can be made that they have in some sense earned the right to citizenship, or at least the right to apply for citizenship."
Nadia Flores, assistant professor of sociology, teaches courses on population, society and international migration.
"I believe it is a crisis, it is a human crisis. And to resolve it we need to look at the issue realistically," Flores said. "We might be able to deport everybody, more than 12 million, but people have lives and families, and have lived in the U.S. for years and years, like Sosa's family."
Von Vacano said the idea that anyone who comes here illegally is breaking the law and should be deported or penalized is counter-productive. It hurts the individual in question and society in the long-run from an economic point of view.
"The U.S. labor market needs both high human capital and low human capital immigrants, [such as] working class immigrants, because of the hour-glass shape of the labor market in America," he said. 'You need really highly educated people and low-skill people for the economy to function well, especially with the economy in recession. So that might be one way to help the economy while paying attention to the ethical issues with regards to people like Walter Sosa."
Von Vacano said there is an economic benefit to having immigrants, especially if they are good students.
"People say that immigrants come here to abuse the system, and that is one of the things that immigration looks at: has this person been abusing the system? Has been receiving benefits from the government," Flores said. "Most people come here to work, it's not like the [commonly used] rhetoric. People have pride, they don't want to feel a burden. On the contrary, they want to be self-sufficient."
Von Vacano commented on both sides of the immigration issue and pointed out the possible negative impact of immigration.
"Evidence shows that it is true with very low-skilled labor. Immigrants are taking jobs away from possible alternate workers who are born here," he said. "I don'tthink that it is an entirely intractable problem. It can be solved with certain kinds of programs.
"It has a limited impact, it won't affect all laborers. For instance, at the high-end, the U.S. doesn't produce enough engineers and scientists, so immigration in those fields is good for the U.S. We need to focus more on the lower part of the labor market. The major issue is that in some parts of the country, low-income African-Americans will suffer more given increased immigration from Latin America and Asia, in competition for low-skill jobs."
Flores said that there are visas for skilled workers, but not for unskilled workers.
"We have a huge demand for unskilled workers because the market is trying to compete [in the new global economy]. The companies can either hire unskilled labor, or they outsource [to outside the U.S.]"
"I came to the country as an undocumented immigrant," Flores said. "I qualified for IRCA [the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed by the Reagan Administration], the Amnesty of 1986, and that is how I was able to continue with my education. I didn't know any English when I came to America. I had to learn English and then go to a community college."
Flores went on to receive a bachelor's degree from University of California-Irvine and received a fellowship to earn her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania before coming to work at A&M.
"This is an example of the potential these kids bring with them," she said. "Whether we want them or not, these kids are here and they will be in the labor force, and so [part] of the future of this country. So if we don't educate them, what will become of the future of this country?"
Selectively enforcing immigration laws Von Vacano said that residents of the U.S. feel that laws are supposed to be followed and therefore support the cracking down on illegal immigrants.
"They feel a very strong ethical commitment to the respect for the rule of law universally," he said. "It is a very important element of a republic, the respect for the rule of law. Anything that makes an exception of that will undermine the republican basis of a state."
Flores said that one problem is that the U.S. has laws. It is said that people are breaking the laws, but they are not enforced.
"We have had an employer sanction laws for 20 years, but the employers weren't punished for hiring undocumented labor," she said. "So we sort of created the problem. It is partly our fault. We have a demand for labor, [and] as long as that demand exists, people are going to show up. And if we allow the employers to hire them, then people will have jobs and so people will keep coming, no matter how they get in."
Von Vacano said enforcement should not be the only issue with immigration. Other mechanisms should apply through which immigrants, legal and illegal, can apply for citizenship more easily.
"The law enforcement aspect of the issue has been emphasized too much when in fact it is almost like a supply and demand situation,ow to make it easier for immigrants to apply for residence and citizenship and not to make it prohibitively difficult," he said. "For example, the fees required to apply for residence of citizenship are very high, so many families which are poor cannot afford [to apply], and there isn't really much of a reason to have that.
"There has been negligence on all kinds of issues. We haven't been providing legal visas, so people can come in legally," Flores said. "When people ask, 'Why didn't they stand in line?' there is no line, especially for people from Latin America, which is why they come in undocumented."
President Bush, in his State of the Union address Monday, acknowledged the problem and the need for more legal visas for immigrants.
"It isvery appealing, ethically, not to reward someone who is breaking the law, but in this case what is more important is state interest," von Vacano said. "The interest of the U.S. government and economy is one in which you have personal knowledge of who is inside the country. That is why we need a system that doesn't deport everyone or ignore the issue."
Von Vacano said the state should distinguish between people who are threats and those who aren't.
"That shows a much more nuanced, a much more sophisticated approach to immigration, not one with blanket applicability to everyone," von Vacano said. "One huge danger of the post-9-11 reaction by the state is that in some cases, people go too far in blaming and fearing all immigrants and foreigners living in the U.S. That is in itself very ethically suspect and dangerous."
Flores said another issue is the border and the U.S.' relationship with Mexico and Latin America.
"It is a fact that this country needs to be protected from terrorists, but these people aren't terrorists," she said. "How do you distinguish between terrorists and people who want to come here and work? You have to come up with a legal way for people to come in, so that you can screen them and so know who they are."
"[Rudy] Giuliani, as mayor of New York, was very lax about immigrant policy. He has made a huge change between his time as mayor and as a [presidential] candidate, primarily for political reasons, to get support from the more conservative wing of the Republican Party," von Vacano said. "He, and to some extent, [Mitt] Romney as well, were very relaxed about immigrants.
"Their change has been driven by polls and short term political considerations, while I think they do realize that in the long run it is better to have a system that is a little more flexible. That doesn't mean that you allow every one to come in, but it has to be pragmatic and logical.
"Surprisingly the Democrats are ignoring the issue," he said. "According to polls, most democratic constituents aren't considering immigration as an important issue compared to Iraq and the economy. I think that both Hillary Clinton and [Barack] Obama have neglected the issue."
Von Vacano said the cultural dimension of immigration is important and that U.S. residents are resisting immigrants because of the difference in culture.
"[The differences between the U.S. and other cultures] cannot be dismissed easily. Empirical evidence, primarily from Robert Putnam, shows that the more diversity in a given town or location, the less trust exits," he said. "This kind of argues against more immigration. Cultural cohesion might benefit from more homogeneity. If migration persists at a very high rate there might be a change in national identity in the long-run. That is not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it is important.
"One of the strengths of the U.S. is that its national identity has been built by immigration, through immigrants, making the U.S. more open to other cultures more than any other state in the world," von Vacano said.
Von Vacano said that a solution can be derived from a question of balancing state interest and ethical concerns.
"The question becomes what is best for the U.S. in the long run, for the economy, for the national security. I think that should be the guiding principle," von Vacano said.
"If they can prove that they have been good citizens, that they haven't committed any felonies, any crimes, they pay their taxes, they have good credit, [then] they should be given an opportunity to stay," Flores said.
Flores said that immigrants are part of U.S. society, and them living in the shadows of this society has consequences.
"We created this situation, so now we have to confront it, and try and see hat we can do," she said. "But we have to do it in a humanistic way, because we are talking about people's lives."
© 2008 The Battalion via U-WIRE