UN warns Ebola could infect 10,000 people per week—unless we act now

Immigration reform must keep families together, out of poverty

Maria Rodriguez

This piece appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on May 30, 2013.

Jose has been in foster care. He didn't think he belonged there, with children who have been abandoned or abused. His mom, caring and competent, is devoted but deported.

A victim of horrific, high rates of deportation, she was sent back to Nicaragua. Jose was left alone and in poverty. Now 18, he organizes for immigration reform.

Daisy is a U.S. citizen. Her undocumented husband was caught driving without a license and was detained and deported. Heartbroken, Daisy didn't know what to tell her children when they cried for their dad.

She made the hard choice to join him in Mexico,understanding that family matters most. But U.S. poverty was nothing compared with Mexican poverty. Survival was at stake. She returned to Florida without her primary breadwinner. Now she's a single mom, barely eking out a living.

As America debates much-needed immigration reform, the issue of criminalizing and deporting immigrants while making poverty worse for their families looms large. Jose and Daisy, an orphan and a widow of deportation, could have had modest but meaningful lives, but instead a broken immigration system plummeted them into poverty and the pain of separation. Two families, not quite whole, had to reconstruct themselves.

She made the hard choice to join him in Mexico,understanding that family matters most. But U.S. poverty was nothing compared with Mexican poverty. Survival was at stake. She returned to Florida without her primary breadwinner. Now she's a single mom, barely eking out a living.

As America debates much-needed immigration reform, the issue of criminalizing and deporting immigrants while making poverty worse for their families looms large. Jose and Daisy, an orphan and a widow of deportation, could have had modest but meaningful lives, but instead a broken immigration system plummeted them into poverty and the pain of separation. Two families, not quite whole, had to reconstruct themselves.

One way to increase social mobility in the United States and reduce poverty and economic inequality is to fix the broken immigration system. Migration is a natural, historical phenomenon. People move — especially as a result of global economic changes.

In Florida, our primary industries would be crippled without immigrant workers. It's not fair to want their labor, but not their humanity. Why is the free flow of capital and goods globalized, yet the movement of labor — workers, people, families — criminalized.

Jose and Daisy are victims of a virtual detention and deportation war on immigrants. Like any war, it has collateral damage — the war on drugs ravaged poor and African-American communities.

This one devastates Latino families. Putting people behind bars, excluding people from the workplace and from citizenship, makes them vulnerable to exploitation and creates a permanent underclass in chronic poverty and systemic racism.

But incarcerating immigrant families not only impoverishes them; it comes at a high cost to all of us. In fact, in fiscal year, 2012, $18 billion of our federal tax dollars went to immigration enforcement — to go after Jose's mom and Daisy's husband.

That staggering amount is about 20 percent more than all other federal law enforcement combined — more than the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies put together.

By denying 11 million immigrants a permanent residency card and a drivers license, and devoting our resources to overzealous and misguided enforcement, we keep them and us in the dark. These dollars could instead be invested in job creation, homeless veterans or the elderly.

But criminalization impoverishes some more than others. For-profit prisons wrote and promoted laws that increase their business of incarceration, like Arizona's "show me your papers" law. Socialize the cost of enforcement, privatize the profit.

Just like any other market, we're sold a service — imprisonment — we don't want or need. A hefty prison lobby works the marbled halls of Congress to promote its market, protecting its profit margin.

True fiscal conservatives should take note: On any given day, we incarcerate thousands of immigrants who pose no public-safety threat, unnecessarily put behind bars for civil immigration violations.

It costs more to imprison them than to place them in alternatives to detention. Our punitive approach is wrong, costly and ultimately ineffective.

Punitive policies that demonize people, like the war on immigrants and the war on drugs, don't make us safer. They separate families, worsen poverty, deplete budgets and promote racism.

We need reform that values families, ends mandatory detention, removes the profit motive behind incarceration and gives families a real opportunity to stay together and out of poverty.

 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the positions of Oxfam America.


As Executive Director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, María Rodriguez has worked to defend basic human rights of low-income and migrant peoples for 25 years. She is a graduate of Georgetown University, where Maria was active in the anti-apartheid and Central America solidarity movements. She connected with Tenant and Workers' United, where she became the lead organizer on a campaign to create a housing cooperative. She has worked to defend public health care coverage and promoted the growth of award-winning free clinics. ​ She also served as Deputy Director of the Human Services Coalition in South Florida. Maria has been a Board Member for Florida New Majority, ACLU of Florida, New World Foundation Board in New York, and the Highlander Center in Tennessee. She founded FLIC in 2005 and is the mother of Dante.