California Forum

Caging children? Hurting Dreamers? How our debased immigration politics must change

Elsa Johana Ortiz protests in front of the hotel where the ministers of foreign affairs of Central America and Mexico met with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on immigration issues, in Guatemala City, Tuesday, July 10, 2018. Ortiz’s son, Antony David Tobar Ortiz, was separated from her in Houston, Texas and deported. (AP Photo/ Oliver de Ros)
Elsa Johana Ortiz protests in front of the hotel where the ministers of foreign affairs of Central America and Mexico met with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on immigration issues, in Guatemala City, Tuesday, July 10, 2018. Ortiz’s son, Antony David Tobar Ortiz, was separated from her in Houston, Texas and deported. (AP Photo/ Oliver de Ros) AP

One of the most corrosive elements in our politics today is the complete and total rejection of facts and reason. Once indisputable truths are waved away as “fake news,” while journalists are routinely attacked as personally corrupt when telling uncomfortable truths. In place of reasonable conversation, we have angry, vitriolic, even violent rhetoric. And nowhere has that toxicity has been more destructive than in the immigration debate.

America is no stranger to intense polarization on immigration, though through much of our country’s history, immigration was only loosely regulated, if at all. The Ellis Island Museum has an entire archive devoted to anti-immigrant campaigns of the sort that gave us the “no Irish need apply” signs of the 1800s. These waves of nativism have historically been preceded by economic crises or some other panic, such as the Red Scare of the 1920s.

Waves of nativism have historically been preceded by economic crises or some other panic, such as the Red Scare of the 1920s. What’s different and dangerous now is that we’re not in an economic crisis. And some of the angriest voices live in some of the wealthiest communities in America.

What’s different and dangerous now is that we’re not in an economic crisis. And some of the angriest voices live in some of the wealthiest communities in America.

A confluence of hostility, anger and tribalism is poisoning our society. President Donald Trump’s campaign declarations that Mexicans are rapists and Muslims should be banned from entering the country tapped into that and took it to a level not seen since George Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door.

Even the Supreme Court has been infected, ruling last month to uphold a scaled-back version of Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban. Never mind that the ruling, in an aside, also overruled Korematsu v. United States, the anti-immigrant decision that permitted the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. As Justice Sonya Sotomayor said in her dissent, Trump’s ban was just a variation on the same hateful thinking: “By blindly accepting the government’s misguided invitation to sanction a discriminatory policy motivated by animosity toward a disfavored group, all in the name of a superficial claim of national security, the court redeploys the same dangerous logic underlying Korematsu and merely replaces one ‘gravely wrong’ decision with another.”

Fortunately, the great majority of Americans have not reacted by rejecting ‘e pluribus unum’ but by embracing those words even more forcefully. Human decency is resonating: Nothing has spoken to us so powerfully as images of incarcerated children, locked up by our government in cages. Every moment for those kids is a nightmare. Every moment for their parents is agony. Every moment this continues is a stain on our national history, and it will not be corrected by the outrage at the news alone.

The only way to reverse course will be to organize and elect candidates in November who are committed to sane and human immigration policies. It can be done: Most Americans are appalled at what’s happening in their name. That’s why we’ve seen people leave work to protest, lawyers leave practices to represent migrant parents, and members of Congress leave Washington D.C. to personally demand answers from the wardens of these internment camps.

Our morality is being tested. We, as a country, are rediscovering the wisdom of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he wrote that “any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades personhood is unjust.”

Our government is degrading the families that have been ripped apart, the Dreamers who are locked in a prison of uncertainty, the undocumented immigrants fearful of imprisonment by ICE, and every other American who pledges allegiance to our flag. But the reaction to these outrages by such a huge number of everyday Americans shows why, when he said “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice,” Dr. King was also right.

John A. Pérez is the former Speaker of the California State Assembly, a University of California regent and a participant in The Sacramento Bee/McClatchy Influencers series. Reach him on Twitter at @JohnAPerez and find the series (with more on immigration Monday) at sacbee.com/influencers.

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