Immigration has become a controversial policy debate in the modern era, and even more so with the rise of Donald Trump and nationalist populism. There are valid arguments for maintaining security along the physical border. But this only constitutes a fraction of immigration policy. In reality, a large portion of immigration enforcement requires increased scrutiny of American citizens within the country.
The Washington Post recently published a story chronicling multiple incidents in which Mexican-American citizens were denied passports or had them revoked in the southern border region due to skepticism of the validity of their birth certificates. Many of those questioned or denied were birthed by midwives identified by the government as potentially providing forged citizenship documents to children not born in the United States. Of course, those possessing fraudulent documentation should not be granted passports. However, this heavy-handed approach to denying and revoking passports, a fundamental civil right, results in unintended consequences that affect valid citizens and disproportionately low-income minorities.
I do not mean to imply that there is an inherent racism within the individuals enforcing these policies. Aspects of the enforcement of immigration laws will naturally be arbitrary given the difficulty of identifying fraudulent documents and those supplying them. Standards must be set at some level, and those that do not meet those qualifications will be questioned. I do mean to state, however, that due to the necessarily arbitrary nature of the enforcement of these laws, a disproportionate number of minority citizens and legal residents will be unjustly affected by them.
This assertion is supported by historical and present-day evidence. After being blamed for exacerbating the Great Depression, an estimated minimum of 400,000 Mexicans living in the U.S. were repatriated to Mexico, an estimated 60 percent of which were legitimate citizens. Today, the denial of passports along the southern border area also affects citizens’ freedoms. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released 1,480 people from their custody after confirming their citizenship since 2012, and held one citizen in custody for more than three years as he attempted to prove his citizenship.
Race, though not necessarily the motivator of immigration crackdowns, plays an important role in the practical implementation of strict immigration policy. This is not difficult to deduce. In an imperfect world, agents’ resources will be allocated to best achieve their goals. In a nation with a non-Hispanic, white majority (63 percent of the population in 2012), it does not make practical sense for an immigration agent enforcing a checkpoint or reviewing passport applications to treat non-Hispanic whites with the same scrutiny as minorities, especially given the historical record of Mexican immigration and the U.S.’s close proximity to Mexico, a country with vastly different demographics. Again, this does not mean ICE agents are racist, nor are the policies themselves. But the process of allocating limited resources to reach a goal necessarily results in minority citizens facing more scrutiny than non-Hispanic whites.
Why does this matter? An obvious issue is it sets different standards for citizens based on arbitrary distinctions outside of their control. It also disproportionately impacts those who have the least amount of resources available to handle legal disputes. Midwives are largely used in southern border areas by those who cannot afford typical medical care, and the Washington Post reports that many midwives identified by the federal government as potential lawbreakers gave out thousands of valid birth certificates throughout their careers.
Not only will Mexican-American citizens face increased barriers to accessing their civil rights, they are also more likely to fail to overcome them. Low-income descendants of immigrants are least likely to possess adequate paperwork when faced with increased scrutiny. A Mexican-American veteran interviewed by the Washington Post said that, when the validity of his birth certificate was questioned, documents such as evidence of his mother’s prenatal care and rental agreements from when he was a baby were requested. This inconsistency can breed resentment and distrust of American society among populations attempting to assimilate.
Some will likely argue that the benefits outweigh the costs. Better that one citizen be denied their liberties than those illegally in the country be provided rights many would argue they do not deserve. But is this the standard by which we judge all policy decisions, constitutional protections be damned? The answer would be obvious if conservatives place the consistent preservation and promotion of citizens’ individual rights at the core of the government’s purpose and our country’s values.
There are indeed policies in which this standard is rightly criticized by conservatives, who are most likely to be immigration hardliners. The debate surrounding gun control and second amendment rights stands as a relevant example. Conservatives defend the right to bear arms when progressives argue that it is better to restrict the rights of gun owners to protect innocent lives from those who would abuse that right. Why do they then make this argument in the immigration debate? Consistency requires going the extra step to declare both arguments ridiculous.
Alex Taylor is a senior studying economics.