Friday, October 05, 2007

Profiles in Cowardice

By Joan Suarez

The failed attempt by the U.S. Senate to address immigration reform dealt a huge blow to a country that has waited over two decades for solutions to one of our most pressing national issues.

Of greatest concern is that 53 Senators, including our own Senators, chose to ignore the vast majority of Americans who support a comprehensive solution and instead gave up too soon on the legislative process.

Immigration is an emotionally-charged and complex issue—taking it on requires leadership, courage and putting aside partisan politics. And there was a courageous bipartisan group of Senators that tried to craft legislation to bring both parties to the table. The Senate bill was far from perfect, but legislators knew the bill had to go through the House of Representatives and a Conference Committee, where outstanding issues could still be ironed out.

That is the most alarming aspect of the immigration debate—the politics of fear and hate. Groups at the local level working with immigrant communities are all too familiar with it. They have received hate mail and threats, seen swastikas sprayed on windows, and experienced the backlash that renders whole communities suspect and obscures the path to sound policy-making.

Here in our very own state, we have seen families forced from their homes, children separated from their parents, and local businesses intimidated for serving immigrants. The governor’s recent immigration directives are just another misguided attempt to fill the void that the federal government has left.

Our country is frustrated and angry with federal inaction on this issue, but a patchwork of state laws won’t work and these tactics of fear and the intolerance they spread are summarily rejected by the vast majority of our fellow Americans.

And it is dodging rather than confronting the intimidation of a well-organized minority that led other Senators to put their own interests above the country’s need for reform.

Although the attempt to establish immigration solidly as a wedge issue in the 2006 Election failed, candidates who ran solely on an anti-immigrant platform lost. Voters continue to demand a solution, yet some politicians would rather ignore the issue because this small but loud opposition may disrupt the picture-perfect look of their public events. Sacrificing policy over politics is not new, but when our leaders are afraid to take action, it may be time to re-evaluate who is signing up for the job. After all, any issue we care deeply about will require character, political courage, and determination to act.

The immigration issue will not go away, and those who claimed inaction was a victory stand for a broken system that makes our borders less safe, our economy less stable, and our communities more vulnerable.

This already untenable situation is likely to worsen in the absence of federal action, with state and local governments enacting a patchwork of ineffective laws that cannot solve the problem but leave an indelible mark in our quality of life, where employers, cops, priests, you and I are being called upon to act as immigration agents and turn against our neighbors.

We’ve already seen anti-immigrant legislation in Missouri, and we will see it again in the upcoming session. But Missourians and all Americans deserve better than that. The American people will continue to demand a workable and fair solution that restores the rule of law, secures our borders, strengthens our economy and upholds the values of faith, family and hard work that are the cornerstone of our democracy. Now we need to find leaders that will walk that path with us.
Suarez is the chairperson of Missouri Immigrant & Refugee Advocates. A version of this op-ed previously ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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