As somebody who's written a good bit on the subject, I used to go regularly to panel discussions on immigration. After a while, I stopped. I wasn't learning anything, and the panelists on both sides infuriated me.
The anti-immigration advocates frequently trafficked in outlandish, racist urban myths about lazy welfare queens and sinister plots to undermine American culture. But the pro-immigration folks weren't much better. By arguing for the expansion of programs such as food stamps or federal assistance to needy families, they played right into their opponents' absurd caricatures of immigrants as freeloaders in search of streets paved with welfare gold.
The pro-immigration advocates undercut the best argument for immigration: that it brings young, ambitious people to our country, who mostly do jobs too poorly paid and too backbreaking to interest Americans. But the idea that immigrants are willing to work hard and make sacrifices in order to give their children a shot at a better life sounds a little too much like the American Dream, which progressives long ago decided was a delusionary cliche.
My belief that progressives are the biggest enemies of their own cause when it comes to immigration has only grown stronger over the past month as I watch the antics of the activists who call themselves the Dream 9.
Five women and four men whose parents brought them into the United States illegally when they were small children, the Dream 9 returned to Mexico earlier this summer, then returned to the border at Nogales, Ariz., demanding political asylum on the grounds that they have "a credible fear of persecution or torture" in Mexico.
Their claim was obviously a political stunt to embarrass the Obama administration - they could have requested asylum without leaving the United States, and surely would have if they really thought they'd have their fingernails pulled out in Mexico. And the ploy worked. Two weeks later, they were released into the United States on parole while their cases wind through the U.S. immigration courts, which could take years.
That sounds clever. But it may prove incredibly destructive. Last week, a Phoenix television station reported that some 200 people showed up at the border crossing in Otay Mesa, Calif., in a single day, asking for political asylum. So many have followed that the Immigration and Custom Enforcement detention center has been overwhelmed, and the asylum-seekers are being put up in $100-a-night hotel rooms.
You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to suspect that there's some coaching involved.
If the Otay Mesa asylum claims continue and spread, a lot of people are going to be hurt, starting with the immigrants themselves. The Dream 9, operating in the world media spotlight and backed by an army of immigration lawyers, got out of detention almost immediately. Non-celebrity asylum applicants don't walk that red carpet.
It will typically take them months to even get their first interview with an immigration officer, and the entire asylum process can stretch out for years. Some applicants - those with good lawyers, along with provable family ties or money to post a sizable bond - will be released on parole. Others will languish the entire time in an immigration lockup that feels pretty much like prison.
Maybe, just maybe, that's worth admission to the United States. But most asylum applicants will never get their ticket. Of the 86,053 people who asked for asylum last year, only about 29 percent received it. That percentage is bound to fall even further if a wave of phony claims hits the American border.
In effect, the Dream 9 are encouraging other immigrants to play a game of Russian roulette with their lives, gambling at long odds that serving time in an immigration jail will get them into the United States. It's a bad bet.
Meanwhile, the entire institution of political asylum will fall under withering and skeptical scrutiny not just by immigration officials, but by American voters. And how can this possibly be good for the chances of the immigration-reform bill under consideration in Congress? For a lot of people, those nine activists are less likely to be remembered as a dream than a nightmare.
Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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