Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Immigration: Where Do We Go From Here?

Listen to Janet Napolitano's talk

"The topic of illegal immigration probably encapsulates the phrase 'applied ethics' more than anything else in American political life today," according to Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who headlined a day of events on ethics and immigration at her alma mater, Santa Clara University. The April program was spearheaded by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Napolitano addressed the question, "Immigration: Where Do We Go From Here?' offering a critique of inaction by the federal government, some firsthand experience from a state in the thick of problem, and a set of concrete proposals for comprehensive reform. Also part of the day's activities was were two events focused on amnesty and a program on the spirituality of Cesar Chavez.

Napolitano acknowledged the wide continuum of opinions on the illegal immigration. At one end, she said, are the "wall people," who believe that the problem can be solved by building a fence at the border. "My response to them is, 'Show me a 50-foot wall, and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder,'" she said. At the other end are those who believe in totally open borders.

Both, Napolitano argued, are wrong. Immigration, she said, involves the most basic rights of citizenship and the sovereignty of the nation: "You have to have an immigration policy that works in order to protect those fundamental values."

She pointed to some of the results of our current, "broken" policy: The rise of immigrant smuggling gangs that rival drug smugglers in their brutality; the deaths of hundreds of would-be immigrants trying to cross into America illegally through the desert; the depression of wages for all workers because illegal immigrants cannot demand the protections of U.S. labor laws.

Immigration policy, "inherently a federal function," in Napolitano's view, has suffered from the inability of Washington to deal with this controversial topic, and, as a result, the problems have fallen to the states.

In Napolitano's state, that has meant significant costs. While Napolitano stressed that illegal immigrants are not "leeches" on American entitlement programs like welfare, their children do go to school and they do get health care at emergency rooms.

While most are law-abiding residents, if even a small percentage of the estimated 12-13 million illegal immigrants in this country commit crimes, incarcerating them can be very costly. The federal government is supposed to pay this bill, and Napolitano has famously invoiced the U.S. attorney general for this cost beginning in 2004. "At that time," she said, "it was about $300 million. I waited 30 days for my check to come, and it didn't. Then I waited another 15 days, because I'm polite, and then I sent them another bill with a late fee on it. I keep sending those bills, and it's now almost $500 million."

Napolitano called for comprehensive reform at the federal level, including:

  1. Improving the visa system by allowing more people into the country legally
  2. Creating a temporary worker program that provides for the needs of sectors like agriculture, tourism, and construction without undercutting the rights of US workers
  3. Better technology at the borders to track who is coming into the country
  4. Modernizing ports of entry
  5. Dealing with the demand side of the equation, including employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants
  6. Dealing with the root causes of immigration like poverty and unemployment south of the U.S. border

Also, she argued, the United States needs to deal with the 12-13 million illegal immigrants who are already in this country. Some recent proposals, she said, are unworkable, including "report to deport" programs, where people are expected to turn themselves in. Besides being unlikely to produce compliance, this approach, she said, "doesn't really deal with the millions who came here illegally, stayed, and then had children here. Those children are citizens. You're going to split up all those families under the guise of immigration reform, as if that will solve the issue."

Nor did the governor think amnesty was the solution. "In my view, the country needs to have a process that requires those who are here illegally to register, to pay a fine, to learn English, to pay their taxes, and to get in a queue to earn citizenship," she said. "To me that's not amnesty."

Amnesty was also the focus of two other events during the day. A panel focused on that issue from a Catholic perspective with Kevin Appleby, director of the Office of Migration and Refugee Policy of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Erica Dahl-Bredine, Catholic Relief Services-Mexico country representative.

Appleby and Dahl-Bredine then joined a group of distinguished scholars and policy makers for a discussion of amnesty. Included in the group were representatives from Zoe Lofgren's and Mike Honda's congressional offices, community organizations, and scholars from SCU, University of San Francisco, the Jesuit School of Theology. The group is crafting a statement on the amnesty issue.

Napolitano's presentation was co-sponsored by the Commonwealth Club of Silicon Valley. The day's events were underwritten in part by a gift from the Bustos/Lopez Family Fund.

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