“Twelve Years a Slave” and Immigration Reform: The Obvious Parallels

12 Years a Slave CoverThe Attorney has just seen “Twelve Years A Slave,” the moving but shocking story of a free Afro-American U.S. Citizen who was “kidnapped,” or taken south to Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery before the Civil War. He spend 12 years as a slave, and finally was able to prove that he was entitled to release. In the meantime, he was nearly hanged, he witnessed a lynching, rapes, and was forced into submission to his Southern “owners” and swore off his identity as a “free man” in order to survive.

As this country debates the “path to citizenship” included in the Senate Bill but which has been deliberately omitted from all but the most fringe proposals in the House versions of immigration reform legislation, a reality similar to slavery is taking place one hundred and fifty years later. This is particularly true in the red states, or in those states where “what part of illegal don’t you understand” tends to resonate first and foremost in the immigration debate. It is becoming clear to millions of Americans that families of Hispanic refugees are being separated by the record number of deportations of mixed nationality families. “Unauthorized immigrants” as the media would now like to coin the term, “undocumented aliens” as the currently more liberal population uses the term, or “illegal aliens” as used by the right wing opponents of immigrant reform, are now being held in detention for minor traffic offenses and sometimes no crimes at all while the slow, cumbersome and substantially unable to render justice, the Justice Department’s own Executive Office for Immigration Review and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sees that Congress’s 1997 “dirty work” is done.

In legislation passed six weeks before President Clinton’s re-election by the then predominantly Republican Congress, the new law enacted mostly on April 1, 1997 simply left the Executive Office for Immigration Review without remedies to stay for the fifteen million or so unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. (Note: Immigration Judges are powerless to consider cases for immigrants who do not qualify for the restricted relief and must order deportation, or at a minimum departure at the alien’s own expense). There are a mere four thousand visas a year for those unauthorized foreign nationals present in the U.S. upon apprehension, who have ten years of physical presence in the U.S., can show good moral character, are the spouse, parent or child of such a U.S. Citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident relative(s) and they only stay if they can show ‘exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to U.S. Citizen or Legal Permanent Resident spouse, parents or children in the aggregate. These cases are simply too hard to win for most hard working and deserving mixed nationality families. There are a few other remedies available, but obstacles abound. In the meantime, the owners of the detention centers, Corrections Corporation of America of Tennessee being the largest, keep lobbying Congress with unprecedented amounts of campaign contributions to keep minimum bed spaces filled by potential deportees at great expense to the U.S. Treasury. How does this practice help the United States to compete with China? How does this system help us pay back China? The answer should be obvious.

Congress’ “dirty work” referred to above was the passage of the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996, which mostly went in to effect on April 1, 1997. This horrific piece of legislation above all made it nearly impossible for most unauthorized immigrants, undocumented aliens, or illegal aliens to convert from illegal to legal without waiting ten years outside of the country. Yet these same people, not someone’s property but people, many with U.S. Citizen families, have not been able to do anything to obtain legal status since then. I practice law mostly in a state which denies drivers licenses to unauthorized immigrants, and creates escalating criminal penalties for such people who choose to, or have to drive to survive in this country in the twenty first century. As a U.S. Citizen who lost a cousin on September 11, 2001, I find it the most idiotic waste of money and police resources to pursue those who drive without a license. These same legislators scorn or ignore any suggestion that if you issue a driver’s license to everyone present in the U.S., we might have a good data base to track known terrorists in our midst. No, it is politically expedient to blame our problems on the unauthorized immigrants rather than allow this economy to absorb their economic contributions with the common goal of making our economy work better.

Unauthorized immigrants pay millions of dollars in traffic fines (not to mention taxes) to many failing municipalities for driving without a license in the State of Georgia, and probably elsewhere. The new fine schedule in Georgia for driving without a license which has been in effect since 2008 has replenished the coffers of many otherwise nearly broke local governments, and has made the Republican Governors and legislators look better than they should. Giving the unauthorized immigrants the right to drive and the necessity to pay taxes would accomplish the same goal, yet there is insufficient mention of this obvious solution in the public debate over immigration reform.

Similarly, there are not enough stories about the ills which befall U.S. Citizen children whose mother or father has been expelled from this country by Cobb, Whitfield, Gwinnett and Hall counties for driving without a license. These counties turn nearly every unauthorized immigrant who winds up in their jail for driving without a license over to the mostly heartless U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement for processing for deportation.

No, the Attorney freely admits there are not rampant lynchings, rapes, or other violent acts against the minorities used for their labor, i.e. the unauthorized immigrants, as were depicted in the movie “12 Years a Slave.” Keep in mind that this movie took place over one hundred and fifty years ago. However, the consistent mistreatment, abuse, jailing and fining of unauthorized immigrants under today’s social norms needs to stop. Modern human rights considerations and nothing less should be considered to be the essence of immigration reform, or the path to citizenship. The term ‘path to citizenship’ itself was created by anti-immigrant Republican types “to rally the troops” – in their mind the message they seek to convey to their loyalists is, “we cannot ever let ‘these people’ vote, can we?” This is anti-immigrant movement’s not so subtle message to the Republican (and anti-immigrant Democrat) loyal troops in the fight against “the illegals.” The fact of the matter is that many of the unauthorized immigrants really don’t want to vote – they just want to work hard, not have to worry about a police car in the mirror all the time, and to be permitted to go back to their home country to visit their relatives. These dreams of the unauthorized immigrants are essentially the same as the dreams of our forefathers who sought life, liberty and the pursuant of happiness and risked their lives to advocate for these basis human rights. Society has come a long way in one hundred and fifty years in terms of recognition of human rights, but it has not come that far.

The final ironic parallel to me between the movie “Twelve Years a Slave” and immigration reform is that at the end of the movie when Brad Pitt says, or at least insinuates that the slave owners will be punished. Perhaps too will those who have knowingly hired unauthorized immigrants to work for them at the expense of their law abiding competition but have done little or nothing politically to improve the dilemma of their workers, although there are few private individuals who can outspend Corrections Corporation of America in lobbying Congress to keeping the deportation machine going at full capacity.

Speaker of the House John Boehner can declare the beginning of the end of the fight for human rights for the unauthorized foreign workers in our midst by putting the Senate bill up to an “up or down vote” in the House. Most insiders assure those in favor of immigration reform that it will pass. I am afraid that Speaker Boehner is afraid he will lose his job if he puts the Senate bill up for a vote in the House due to the Tea Partiers and their friends who shut down the Government over philosophical objections to a law that was passed and declared constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. If Boehner does not put immigration reform up for an “up or down vote” early in 2014, maybe that would not be a bad thing for the good of Congress. “Twelve Years as a Slave” is a great work of art, but at the same time it is symbol of a bygone national embarrassment. If Hollywood or anyone else with courage in the mainstream were to make a movie about the plight of most otherwise law abiding unauthorized immigrants and their families since the 1996 Illegal Immigrant and Immigrant Responsibility Act took effect, “Twelve Years or More Without Papers” would be the name of its modern day equivalent!

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