At critical moments like this in our immigration debate, it’s important to remember how we got to this point.
We got to this point because back in the ’90s and much of the ’00s, we as a nation made a conscious decision to cease stringent enforcement of our immigration laws. We didn’t do so for humanitarian reasons, we did so as part of a cold if informal economic calculation, because we wanted the cheap, docile, backbreaking labor that they would provide that we didn’t choose to do for ourselves.
As a result, we largely looked the other way at the border, and when federal immigration officials did attempt to enforce the laws internally, they were rebuked. One of the seminal events occurred here in Georgia in 1998, when immigration officials led a major raid on illegal immigrants working in agriculture. Instead of being lauded, those enforcement officials were roundly and publicly condemned, with conservative members of Congress warning about possible budget cuts as punishment.
The agencies got the message.
Basically, we invited them to come here. Much of suburban Atlanta, for example, was built by laborers drawn here by the prospect of work and lax enforcement, and real-estate and development fortunes were made on their backs. That political climate only began to change only when the economics changed with the collapse of the housing industry in 2008.
In many cases, the immigrants whom we tacitly invited here made homes here, as human beings do. They brought their children with them. Those children didn’t know legal from illegal. They grew up here; they went to school here. They learned English and played baseball and soccer and even American football. They thought of themselves as American, like their classmates and friends, because in many cases this was the only country that they had known. As a rule they were hard workers, like their parents, with many excelling in the classroom and workplaces.
And now, apparently, we are about to toss them all aside. President Trump — elected on a promise to begin deporting these children — is widely expected to begin doing so so. He is reportedly about to end a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, begun under President Obama, that has given legal protection to some 800,000 immigrant children who can document that they have stayed in school, have kept out of legal trouble, have earned high school or college diplomas and are working toward their dream, their American Dream.
After a quarter century in many cases, we’re now going to send them “back” to countries where they are strangers, because their presence here can no longer be tolerated and their contributions are not welcomed any more. Apparently, this is what it means to “Make America Great Again,” but in my mind, and by every measure that matters, it makes us a smaller, meaner country, a country that has lost both its confidence and its faith in what has made it special.