Like all Americans, I grieve for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. I also grieve for what it does to the American psyche as terrorism once more raises its ugly head. But as an advocate for immigrants, I also worry about how this incident will be used by immigration restrictionists to try to kill much needed immigration reform. Xenophobia, like racism, is embedded deep in humanity (which is not at all to excuse it or commend it). When American men gun down a congresswoman and her supporters, or shoot up a Colorado movie theatre full of people, or a Connecticut elementary school and its beautiful children, people think about mental illness and gun control. When immigrants (no matter how long they have been here) commit an act of terror, we withdraw into xenophobia. Forget the fact that statistically, the foreign born are much less likely to commit crimes in the U.S. than the native born. Forget that even among criminal immigrants in the U.S., immigrants who have been here longer are more likely to commit crimes than more recent arrivals. Once an immigrant commits a crime, we hear calls to shut down the border, as if anyone or any law can predict what somone admitted to the U.S. as a child refugee will do 10 years from now. We demonize immigrant communities, even though those are the ones that can most help to solve these kinds of crimes.
I saw it happen in 2001. We are still recovering from the wave of anti-immigrant fear that covered the nation following the horrible events of 9/11. Much of the problem in the current immigration system stems from Congressional refusal in the wake of 9/11 to re-authorize section 245(i) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA), coupled with terrible, misguided 1996 legislation that created enormous bars to admission to the U.S. for visa violators, regardless of their relationships here. Section 245(i) permitted non-criminal immigrants who had overstayed visas or entered illegally, but who were otherwise eligible to immigrate based on family or employer sponsorship, to pay a substantial fine and complete the immigration process. Without that law, they were unable to regularize their status in the U.S., even though they had the relationships that we have recognized as warranting permission to remain here. With no way to get right with the law again, they resorted to remaining here illegally. Gladly they would leave, pay fines, and do whatever it takes to get legal status in the U.S., if there were a roadmap they could follow. But Congress did not fix the legislative problem and they stayed, grew, and became part of an enormous underground culture.
Now we are on the cusp of fixing those legislative problems to create a better system of immigration to the U.S. A fix that increases security, but also increases the possibilities of enormous benefit to the U.S. that comes from a better immigration policy. We can’t let fear once more take over and keep us from doing the right thing.