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Year in review: The most troubling immigration trends

December 20, 2011 |  5:22 pm

Congress failed to enact any meaningful immigration legislation this year, leaving in place a woefully flawed system. Sure, it's a vexing issue. But ignoring the problem only makes matters worse. Here are five troubling trends:

1. Frustration has led to a patchwork of state laws. Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Utah all enacted local fixes to a federal problem. But Alabama's approach was by far the most controversial. That state's tough law requires that police check the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest if they believe the person is in the country illegally. Federal courts stepped in earlier this year and blocked key provisions, including one that targeted children by requiring school officials to check the immigration status of students and another that made it a crime to harbor or transport undocumented immigrants. But the legal battle over whether state laws intrude on the federal government’s lone authority to regulate immigration is likely to continue well into next year.

2. U.S. growers were again left to decide whether to face federal sanctions for hiring illegal workers or lose crops.  An estimated 70% of all agricultural workers in the nation are here illegally. That’s been the case for decades, yet federal lawmakers provided little relief and instead offered up the same old answers: A guest worker program with too few protections and too many rules for employers. The failure to enact any significant reforms has cost growers in states like Alabama and Georgia. New laws in those states have chased out farmworkers who fear being deported. And few legal immigrants or U.S. citizens have stepped in to replace them.

3. The GOP adopted a border enforcement-only approach to immigration just in time for election season. Republican presidential hopefuls, with one exception (Newt Gingrich), have refused to discuss any comprehensive fixes, insisting that the Obama administration has failed to crack down on illegal immigration. Never mind that enforcement efforts are at historically high levels along the border. Or that U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics indicate that arrests and illegal crossings at the southern border dipped to record low levels last year. And that the Obama administration has deported more than 1 million undocumented and legal immigrants convicted of crimes over the past three years. For now, Republicans insist that the only fix worth backing is more fences and boots at the border. 

4. Federal programs increasingly rely on state and local police to help enforce immigration laws. This year, the Department of Homeland Security expanded Secure Communities, a controversial fingerprint-sharing enforcement tool into 43 states. Launched in 2008, the program requires police to submit the fingerprints of anyone arrested and booked to the FBI and immigration officials. Secure Communities, however, isn’t delivering. More than half of the 148,841 immigrants deported as of October had either no criminal conviction or minor ones. And last month, three U.S. citizens were detained in Los Angeles because they were mistakenly identified as deportable. Some current and retired police chiefs have also raised raising concerns about participating in such programs. They say the efforts thwart police officers' ability to secure the cooperation of residents in immigrant communities who fear any contact with law enforcement might lead to deportation proceedings. That’s a concern that former Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton raised in 2009 when he argued against the LAPD taking on a greater role in reporting immigrants to federal authorities. Criminals are the "biggest benefactors when immigrants fear police," he wrote.

5. The current system for issuing visas and green cards is hurting America’s ability to stay competitive. Consider what Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said just a few months back. Sandberg suggested that officials aren’t doing enough to retain foreign students who earn postgraduate degrees in math and science from U.S. universities. She's not the only one who thinks the system needs to be changed. Business leaders and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressed similar concerns and said more ought to be done to keep the best and the brightest working in this country.


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--Sandra Hernandez 

Photo: People rallied against House Bill 56 at the Alabama Capitol on Dec. 17. Credit: Lloyd Gallman / Associated Press

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