Immigration is a moral issue, not just an election topic

This article appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

The debate on immigration will just not go away. Republican presidential candidates, for one, won't let it go, beginning with Donald Trump's macho assertions that as president he would deport all 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants. The other candidates kowtow to Trump with their anti-immigrants positions.

At the same time, President Obama's administration helps to stir the pot by recently announcing that a number of Central Americans who crossed the border a year or so ago will be deported. The administration says that this is because these people have exhausted their appeals for asylum as refugees. And now the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the constitutionality of President Obama's executive decision to allow as many as five million undocumented parents of U.S.-born children to regularize their immigrant status and not face possible deportation.

What does all this mean? First of all, the Republicans led by Trump are attempting to fire up their extreme right-wing base by appealing to anti-immigrant nativist sentiment. "We want our country back!" This means that they want their white country back, which is just not going to happen. The United States has become more and more multi-ethnic and multi-racial and nothing that the nativists can do will alter this. In my opinion, the Republicans cannot win the White House back riding an anti-immigrant platform -- which really means an anti-Latino one. Latinos will respond, and their votes will carry the Democratic candidate to victory again.

On the other hand, President Obama's acquiesces to having the Central Americans deported does not help in assuring that the Latino vote will be strongly Democratic again. It has alienated many immigrants' rights groups and for good reasons. In my opinion, the decision to deport what amounts to around 200 Central Americans is related to the administration's appeal to the Supreme Court to rule on the president's executive actions on staying the deportations of those millions of undocumented immigrants. It is a way for the president to show that he can be tough on the undocumented in order to sway the court to support his executive actions on immigration. This may or may not work.

However, it is not just to deport these people. They have fled danger, including killings by a new version of "death squads" in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. These death squads are not political in the way they were in the region's civil wars in the 1980s, but they are similar in that in a non-political way these gang-type groups are victimizing innocent civilians; these civilians are finding no safety in their own countries and have to find asylum in the United States, and not Mexico, which also persecutes and exploits them. The United States needs to recognize these people as legitimate political refugees fleeing a form of civil war and certainly civil disorders, with the strong possibility that if they are deported back, they will face danger including death. President Obama should not be President Reagan who, in the 1980s, refused to acknowledge the Central American refugees as legitimate refugees. President Obama has to be above this and listen to his better angels and in a humanitarian way allow these Central Americans to remain under so-called deferred action until conditions change in their countries.

All of this means that immigration will continue to be a hot-button issue -- but with no resolution in sight. The real victims of all this are the immigrants and refugees who have to continue to live with the duress of being deported, even though most are law-abiding, moral and hardworking people. Those of us with a moral conscience need to speak out and insist that immigration is also a moral issue and that this should guide our actions with respect to other human beings in need.

[Mario T. García is Professor of History and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of many books on Chicano history, including about Olivares in Católicos: Resistance and Affirmation in Chicano Catholic History (Univ. of Texas Press, 2008).]

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