Sunday, October 16, 2011

What happens after we send the illegal immigrants away?

For years, we’ve been told how much better our lives would be after we truly cracked down on illegal immigration. There’d be more jobs for Americans, fewer classrooms bogged down by non-English speakers. Our emergency rooms would be free of burden. We wouldn’t have to punch “1” so much for calls in English. A better life, if only we could send the illegals home.

Now we know.

Here’s what you get when you get the Mexicans to leave: Rotting crops, businesses closing, concerned police, children missing school. And, of course, families torn apart.

But at least the lawbreakers are leaving, right?

This is what we’re seeing in Alabama, which this month began enforcing the most rigorous immigration law in the country. There, it’s illegal to knowingly employ, assist or house an undocumented immigrant. The law also compels schools and police to verify the status of immigrants – or at least those who look like one – although a circuit court temporarily blocked the schools provision late Friday.

Georgia and Arizona lawmakers have passed similar laws, and North Carolina is prepping the soil by forming a new legislative committee on immigration issues. Its goal: make North Carolina “unwelcome for any illegal alien,” said Republican Rep. Frank Iler, a co-chair, to a Wilmington reporter last week.

Now we have a preview of what comes next. In Alabama, the new law has jarred cities and rattled communities where Latinos long ago put down roots while tending crops and working in poultry plants. Church pews are emptying. Businesses are scrambling to replace workers. Police are fretting about when and when not to check papers. Superintendents are pleading with Latino parents, assuring them they won’t be grabbed for deportation when they pick up their child. It’s not working – parents have pulled the kids, many of them U.S. citizens, and kept them home.

Above all, immigrants are leaving – some to other states that might be more welcoming, some back to their homeland.

To which many of you out there would say: Great.

Immigration opponents have long declared – with some real justification – that illegal immigrants strain our emergency rooms, slow our classrooms with ESL students, and cost our cities and towns millions in services. And once they’re gone, the thinking goes, more jobs will be available for unemployed American workers.

Except: In Alabama and Georgia, farmers say the law is killing them. The farmers, most of whom live in rural, conservative counties, say the U.S. Guest Worker program is woefully inadequate in supplying workers to tend their fields. What about all those locals needing jobs? “You’re out there in the sun and the rain,” an Alabama farmers representative told the Washington Post. “It’s just not attractive to Americans.”

So crops are going unharvested, with more than half rotting in some places. Farms are floundering, and prices surely will rise. Another casualty: Businesses that serve immigrant communities are suffering and closing their doors. That’s money that helps rev our economies – and jobs going away when we need them most.

It’s why the send-them-home solution has long been antiquated. Our cities and towns have settled into commerce that includes immigrant communities, their labor force, and their dollars. A better solution includes a combination of tightening borders, penalizing illegal immigrants with back taxes and fines, and perhaps making them take English lessons to help them assimilate – all in exchange for a path to U.S. citizenship.

That basic framework happens to be what President George Bush proposed five years ago, but those ideas were trounced in the Senate. Still, his attempt offered more than President Barack Obama and Congress, who occasionally talk immigration – but never risk the danger of an actual proposal.

The reason, of course, is that poll after poll show passionate disapproval of illegal immigrants. But another survey, conducted this year by Raleigh’s Public Policy Polling, showed that 69 percent of Americans were in favor of a solution similar to Bush’s, with both penalties and a path to citizenship. That support included 80 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of Democrats. Surely, numbers like those might help regrow some spines in Washington.

Because what we have otherwise is Alabama and Arizona and, soon enough, North Carolina.

Here’s what we get from those laws: U.S. citizens carrying identification papers because they look a little brown. Legal Latinos going back to their homeland, too, because they rightfully feel unwelcome. We get, most of all, another shameful chapter of Americans struggling to welcome someone different from those already living among them.

That’s OK, some say, so long as the lawbreakers are leaving.

But where is it leaving us?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

An enemy's death - and neighbor's loss

What should we say to the Khan family?

They live in northeast Charlotte, in a middle class community, and in the five years before my family moved last year, they were my neighbors. They lived down the road and around the bend, and they had a son who played basketball in the street. I probably drove by him, and I’m sure I’ve waved at his parents driving by my home, but I don’t remember.

In fact, I never had occasion to meet the Khans until a few years back, when I walked down the street to knock on their door and ask, as a newspaper reporter, why their son hated the United States.

They didn’t answer the door then, and they have since been quiet until last week, when they released a statement after Samir Khan was killed Sept. 30 along with radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki by a U.S. drone in Yemen.

Samir Khan was 25 years old, a former Central Piedmont Community College student who started writing a radical blog in the basement of his family’s home. By several accounts, his father and others tried to convince him his radicalism was misguided, but Khan moved to Yemen after newspaper reports about that blog. There he produced the al-Qaida magazine “Inspire,” in which he wrote: “I am proud to be a traitor to America.”

So if you’re expecting a defense of Samir Khan here, know this: He declared himself an enemy of the United States, and he died riding in a car with another sworn enemy. We can allow ourselves at least a portion of the satisfaction he would’ve taken if our country were to be attacked again.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions we should ask. What should we say to the Khan family, which was contacted by the U.S. government last week only after the family noted in the statement that no U.S. official had called about Samir Khan’s remains, nor offered any condolences? How do we respond when the Khans point to their son’s death, then to the Fifth Amendment, which promises due process to American citizens?

Constitutional scholars have been divided when asked to reconcile the two. Khan’s death sets a precedent in which the U.S. president can authorize the assassination of a U.S. citizen without a formal charge or trial – and without, essentially, any substantial outside checks on the decision. Even if we think this president made no error with this decision, do we move forward believing every president will make the same, right choice for the right reasons, unchecked and in secrecy? If you were troubled by the constitutional overreaches of the post-?9/11 Bush administration, you should be just as unsettled now.

Many won’t be, of course, just as many have responded to the Khan family statement with the predictably shrill voices that paint Samir Khan as representative of the Muslim American population. Some of us, too, struggle with a subtler and quieter discomfort. It’s that anxiety that’s stirred whenever we see a turban on a plane, and although we fight that urge, in difficult moments we give in. We look the other way when we learn that there’s one less terrorist that can threaten us. We don’t admonish our government for being shamed into acknowledging a family’s pain.

We are 10 years past 9/11, and the stain keeps reappearing. Not the extremists who protest mosques and prattle about Sharia law. Not the intolerant who will find fear no matter the color of its skin. It’s the reasonable among us who lose that reason, in subtle and significant ways, then promise we are and will be better than that.

So what do we say to the Khans, our neighbors, who lost a son last week after losing him years ago? Perhaps there’s not anything we can say, but we can start with this:

We’re sorry.