The forces that divide the nation on immigration reform are readily apparent in Tennessee's overwhelmingly Republican Legislature.
There, one faction of Republicans, strongly influenced by the tea party advocates, wants to look tough on illegal immigrants by passing various pieces of Arizona-style anti-immigrant legislation. Foremost among these is a bill, formatted after the controversial Arizona law, that would encourage police officers to arrest and detain people who look like they could be illegal immigrants. Other bills would require public agencies - for example, hospital emergency rooms and school systems - to confirm the legal status of applicants before they provide public benefits.
Given their rhetoric and apparent focus on police detaining people who might seem to be illegal immigrants, we can only imagine that legislators intend public officials to focus on Hispanics. The thrust of the law, at least, seems to point toward intentional racial profiling. Certainly it's hard to presume that police would be likely to detain and question, say, British or Dutch nationals who deliberately may have long overstayed their vacation visits or visas. Truth be told, however, that's a sure-fire method of illegal entry used by a huge faction of the nation's illegal immigrants every year. It's also far safer than a three-day desert hike across the southern border guided by cruel bandits, extortionists and rapists.
The other Republican faction in the current immigration fray is the traditional business-friendly group that is little interested in legislating requirements to force employers to verify the legal status of immigrants who apply for jobs. This group openly kowtows to the business groups that have rushed to the Legislature to complain that such requirements are unbearably onerous and threaten the viability of their businesses.
The method contemplated by one such bill would require businesses to check job applicants' legal standing on the federal E-Verify data base, which can quickly confirm the visa status of legal immigrants. The business lobbyists say the time, effort and expense of actually checking the data base would be an extreme and unsufferable expense that would harm their business. Who knew a visa verification check, akin to an instant background check to buy a gun, could be so terrible?
In fact, construction companies, textile mills, landscape businesses, restaurants, cleaning agencies, poultry plants, meat packers, and farmers in need of seasonable stoop-laborers and the contractors who organize such crews, are among the many industries that rely heavily on the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented and typically low-wage workers.
Many don't mind hiring workers with questionable, if any, papers, and they are well accustomed to defending their easy access to the workers that keep their businesses humming. Their loyal representatives in Nashville last Wednesday easily approved the hard-sounding Arizona style laws when they came up in a House committee last, but they stridently objected to requiring employers to verify the legal status of new hires.
Their hypocrisy is absurd. America can't fix the problem of illegal immigration as long as employers keep giving jobs to undocumented immigrants and as long as legislators keep winking at that link. Yet this divisive issue and the abuse of illegal immigrants is being played again this year in Republican-dominated states around the country.
This piece of political theater indelibly defines why the nation needs comprehensive immigration reform, why it is so difficult to accomplish that goal, and why the bulk of undocumented immigrants cannot simply be jettisoned and sent back to their country of origin.
Congress needs to undertake comprehensive immigration reform. It must define consensus quotas on visas for the level of immigrant workers that businesses legitimately need, while simultaneously protecting the jobs that Americans should be expected to fill. In doing so, reform efforts must also provide fair protections and an earned path to permanent resident status for undocumented workers who are already in the country, and who have achieved a verifiable and fair claim to such a path by their work history, civic standing and lack of a criminal record.
In the absence of reform, politicians will continue to grandstand for political gain while still attracting, using and abusing the immigrants who help propel our economy - the people who should be legally included and counted on to build a more prosperous and unified future.