Immigration debate: what ‘round ’em up’ actually looks like

Throughout Utah’s immigration debate, some voices have called for a strict enforcement-only policy regarding illegal immigrants. What those voices haven’t explained is what the policy would actually look like if implemented. How exactly do you “round ’em up” and “ship ’em out”? How do you ensure that American citizens aren’t mistakenly forced to leave their home country in this process?

Photo credit: Dan MacMedan, USA TODAY

Well, even if those advocating for enforcement-only measures are a little reticent about actually describing what their policy would lead to, we have a very good idea of what that looks like because it actually happened. During the Great Depression, the U.S. government employed several tactics to force hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans down to Mexico, even though most of them were either here working legally or U.S. citizens. Often called “the repatriation,” the effort included several ugly and illegal tactics inconsistent with American law and values.

A 2006 USA Today article tells the story. A few excerpts:

“They came in with guns and told us to get out,” recalls Piña, 81, a retired railroad worker in Bakersfield, Calif., of the 1931 raid. “They didn’t let us take anything,” not even a trunk that held birth certificates proving that he and his five siblings were U.S.-born citizens.

The family was thrown into a jail for 10 days before being sent by train to Mexico. Piña says he spent 16 years of “pure hell” there before acquiring papers of his Utah birth and returning to the USA.

In the early 1900s, Mexicans poured into the USA, welcomed by U.S. factory and farm owners who needed their labor. Until entry rules tightened in 1924, they simply paid a nickel to cross the border and get visas for legal residency.

“The vast majority were here legally, because it was so easy to enter legally,” says Kevin Johnson, a law professor at the University of California, Davis.

(The U.S. had a simple system that met its labor needs. Why have we made this so complicated today?)

“The slogan has gone out over the city (Los Angeles) and is being adhered to — ‘Employ no Mexican while a white man is unemployed,’ ” wrote George Clements, manager of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce’s agriculture department, in a memo to his boss Arthur Arnoll. He said the Mexicans’ legal status was not a factor: “It is a question of pigment, not a question of citizenship or right.”

The entire article is well worth the read.

To be sure, because “the repatriation” occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s does not mean it would occur today during our generation’s economic downturn. We cannot predict what would happen if enforcement-only were the policy of Utah or the United States government. This episode is useful, however, as it illustrates how our government actually enforced repatriation: the methodologies it employed when it did decide to deport a large ethnic population.

So, if forced deportation is not a realistic or desirable option, then what do we do? The federal government will not enforce its immigration policies consistently. We have tens of thousands of illegal immigrants in Utah. And because of the federal government’s inaction on immigration over the last several decades, many illegal immigrants have been in Utah for years, have become integrated into our economy, schools and society, and, by and large, are making positive contributions to our society.

Yes, there are problems, as with any large group of people. For instance, we need to address identity theft and gangs. But how does strict, enforcement-only policy solve a problem like identity theft? It doesn’t. Because the federal government will not deport the vast majority of illegal immigrants presented to them by state and local agencies, enforcement-only quickly turns into a “catch and release” program: Detainees are legally held for up to 48 hours in state facilities and then released when the federal government refuses to take them into custody.

Most of those detained are not criminals causing harm to our communities, and the main results of “catch and release” are a huge waste of taxpayer dollars and increased mistrust within the undocumented immigrant community, which actually hurts police work.

What is needed, then, is comprehensive reform that actually solves the many complex issues involved in this difficult situation created by federal inaction. In Utah, is HB 116 that panacea? No. Is it a start? Yes. Does it need to be improved? Yes. Sutherland supports HB 116 as passed, wholeheartedly. It’s not the gold standard for Utah as SB 60 was, but HB 116 lays the foundation for great policy on state-based immigration reform that allows us, as a sovereign state, to ensure our public safety, protect our freedom, and promote our economic prosperity. And with a start date of 2013, we have two years to work with the federal government toward finding sensible answers to these challenging issues, while preventing a repeat of the tragedies of the 1930s.