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Op-Ed: Comprehensive Reform Needed on Immigration (Utica Observer-Dispatch)

By Barrie Gewanter — Our region has a proud history of welcoming immigrants, yet today, our nation’s dysfunctional and inhumane immigration system has created a civil rights crisis in New York state and across the county.

For this reason, Mohawk Valley residents should urge our congressional representatives to support comprehensive immigration reform that respects everyone’s rights and upholds America’s promise of fairness and justice for all.

The European immigrants who settled along the Erie Canal during the 19th century left an indelible mark on the Mohawk Valley, building the region’s economy and shaping its rich cultural heritage over many generations.

During the past 30 years, the region has distinguished itself as a haven for waves of refugees from war-torn countries around the globe. Utica’s large refugee population is a vital strength in this region. Immigrants provided a labor source for local manufacturers and retailers. They have stabilized and enriched neighborhoods that had endured years of decline.

These important contributions reflect immigration’s positive effect nationally. According to the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, immigrants increase consumer demand, pay taxes, fuel new businesses and spur job growth. Immigration increases the nation’s gross domestic product by about $37 billion annually. Generations of immigrants were vital in creating the vibrant society that makes America great.

Our Constitution guarantees all people, including immigrants, the right to due process and equal protection under the law. Yet, the federal immigration system strips people of these fundamental rights. Immigrants, documented and undocumented, live in constant fear of being torn from their families and imprisoned or deported. A bureaucratic error or a minor criminal conviction from long ago can mean disaster for immigrant families.

Changes to our immigration laws in 1996 prevent immigration judges from considering the facts and circumstances of individual cases before imprisoning people, sometimes for years, without hearings or access to lawyers. Longtime residents are uprooted and locked up indefinitely with no way to support their families. The United States detains about 300,000 immigrants annually, often in crowded facilities hundreds of miles from their families and without access to basic medical care. Children born in the United States and holding U.S. citizenship are sometimes separated from their parents.

Is this an immigration system we can be proud of?

Fortunately, comprehensive immigration reform ranks among the Obama administration’s stated priorities. The president reiterated his commitment to fixing the immigration system in his recent State of the Union address. As chairman of the Senate’s immigration subcommittee, Sen. Charles Schumer wields enormous influence over reform. Mohawk Valley residents should encourage Schumer and Rep. Michael Arcuri to support reform that protects everyone’s civil rights and liberties. The stakes are too high to get this wrong.

Workable reform will:

  • Provide a realistic pathway to citizenship. Undocumented immigrants want to live in the country legally, but the current system makes that nearly impossible. It’s impractical and immoral to tear apart families by rounding up and deporting millions of people.
  • Restore due process, judicial review and basic fairness to the immigration system. By depriving the vulnerable of these core rights, we erode the constitutional protections everyone values.
  • Treat immigrants in detention centers humanely. Nobody should be denied basic medical care while in U.S. custody. No one should die in U.S. custody because they were denied medical treatment. This is not what America is about.
  • End local enforcement of immigration laws. When local police try to enforce federal immigration law, scarce law enforcement resources are diverted to non-criminal matters. This reduces law enforcement’s ability to respond to real crimes and emergencies.
  • Reject backdoor attempts to establish a national ID card. Schumer has proposed requiring all workers — citizens and immigrants — to carry an ID card containing biometric data, such as fingerprints. This system would endanger our privacy, require the creation of a cumbersome bureaucracy, and result in unnecessary delays and lost job opportunities for everyone.

These sensible reforms would create an immigration system that fulfills American ideals of justice and fairness. They would reflect a truth that Mohawk Valley discovered long ago: immigration strengthens and enriches our community, benefiting all.

Barrie Gewanter is director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Central New York chapter. This column was prepared in cooperation with Pauline Ginsberg, Sunithi Bajekal and Diane Berry, Utica residents who are members of the chapter’s board of directors and activist task force.

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