David W. Leopold
President-Elect, AILA

Unfortunately Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano seems more intent on continuing to target undocumented workers—the victims of a broken immigration system—rather than the bad-actor employers who attract them to the U.S. and then exploit them through low wages and poor working conditions, all at the expense of U.S. workers, who are reeling from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Sure, Napolitano has promised to focus on employers, not undocumented immigrants, but the reality so far seems to be an extension of the heavy handed enforcement policies of the Bush Administration which focused, nearly exclusively, on the arrest, detention, removal (and sometimes coerced prosecution) of the undocumented victims of our chaotic immigration system.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that The Transactions Records Access Clearinghouse found that immigration related federal prosecutions actually increased by a whopping 32% over last year! TRAC reports that “with an unusually large burst of new immigration prosecutions in the last months of FY 2008, the annual number of such cases brought in the nation’s federal courts has more than quadrupled during the eight years of the Bush administration.” That statistic might not be so alarming if it reflected a crackdown on employer violators. But the sad reality is that the focus remains on the undocumented immigrants.

The Times also reported that in preparation for the upcoming Congressional debate about immigration reform Senator Charles E. Schumer, chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, who will be writing the overhaul legislation, “has called on Democrats to show that they are serious about immigration enforcement and is even asking them to stop using the term ‘undocumented’ to refer to immigrants who are here illegally.”

With all due respect to Senator Schumer, “undocumented” not “illegal” is exactly the right term for these victims of our failed immigration policy. Calling human beings “illegal” is as an offensive slur. Yet, because of the incessant promotion of the term by anti-immigrant restrictionists, and their allies in the media this ugly term has found its way into the mainstream of American discourse. Words can hurt. And the term “illegal alien” is designed to do nothing more than dehumanize people and frame the immigration debate in a way that prevents Congress from rolling up its sleeves, getting to work, and fixing the problem.

No one involved in the immigration debate objects to rigorous enforcement of the immigration law to protect national security, the integrity of our borders, and the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers. But the public discussion of immigration reform, especially as it is articulated by our national leadership, must be respectful.

Our deeply flawed immigration system has wrought a humanitarian crisis which threatens families, business, and economic growth as a whole. We need the Administration, together with Congress, to fashion a safe, orderly, and fair immigration policy so that the U.S. can emerge from this global economic crisis stronger than ever. Upping the ante on arrest, detention and name calling hardly promotes that goal.