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Daniel Boone: Illegal Immigrant Frontiersman

If today’s slow, hard slog towards immigration reform gives advocates pause, they might take heart by reaching back into the annals of North American history to consider the continent’s first migrant rights movement, one that sprang up nearly 250 years ago. In their own often fanciful re-telling of history, restrictionists like to boast that their immigrant ancestors, unlike those of today, played by the rules and followed the laws. It ain’t necessarily so.

Consider, for example, the case of Daniel Boone– long regarded as an iconic eighteenth century “frontiersman.” Boone might also be described as an “illegal immigrant” and a coyote, a human smuggler.

Boone was a soldier, hunter, and fur trader whose exploits and role in the western expansion by colonists made him not only an enemy of Native Americans but also, according to British law, an immigrant outlaw. In the early 1760s, the growing population of colonists saw a need to go farther and farther afield in search of game and territory. Their migrations did not please King George III, since expansion meant loss of political and economic control. Wanting to license fur traders, control land speculation, and avoid costly wars with native Americans, in 1763, the monarch ordered that American settlers not move west beyond the Appalachian Mountains. To enforce the policy, the British government created what, in effect, was the first North American border patrol agency, stationing 10,000 troops along the colonial frontier.

“We do hereby strictly forbid, on Pain of our Displeasure, all our loving Subjects from making any Purchases or Settlements whatever” of land outside the influence of the British government, the king decreed in his proclamation.

The king’s “loving Subjects” did not return the affection, and illegal immigrants, ignoring the proclamation, blazed and followed trails across the frontier into what became Kentucky and Tennessee. 2010-04-01-Boone_Cumberland.jpgA famous painting by George Caleb Bingham depicts Daniel Boone in a role that today might be described as a human smuggler escorting “pioneers” through the Cumberland Gap between east Kentucky and Tennessee.

Despite protests by land speculators, traders, and settlers, the British government slightly modified but didn’t back away from the proclamation. As a result, angry colonists made freedom of movement one of their justifications for self-government.

They recorded their displeasure with the king in one of the grievances enumerated in the Declaration of Independence: “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.”

So, the colonists were a pro-immigrants rights bunch who not only disobeyed the laws of the land and advocated their change, but connected migrants’ rights with their own well-being and that of the states. Sound familiar?

Yes, I know it’s an imperfect analogy. Today, there’s no tyrannical king ruling from afar. Migrants aren’t at war with native Americans. Nor is there a rebellion of foreign colonists who view migration in terms of economic and territorial expansion. But some of the underlying fundamentals have distinct parallels. Yesterday’s fur traders, as well as frontiersmen and women, would recognize themselves among today’s migrant advocates. Many businesses regard the importation of foreign workers as key to their economic development. And, for their part, many migrants cross political boundaries to escape hardship and to find opportunity.

What are the policy implications of this? For one thing, using history as our collective memory allows us to break down walls between “us” and “them.” The more we understand our commonalities, the less able we are to demonize the other.

For another, coming at immigration by enacting policies that take account of why people migrate is without question a better strategy than acting like a monarch and erecting higher fences and mobilizing more border guards. That plan didn’t work out too well for George III. It didn’t stop Daniel Boone, and for many of the same reasons, it’s unlikely to prevent today’s frontiersmen and women from crossing borders in pursuit of their own settlements and goals.


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A Bipartisan Immigration Plan, Carrots and Sticks

Just days ahead of a planned Sunday rally that immigrants’ rights advocates hope will bring tens of thousands of people to Washington D.C., Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have put out a “blueprint” to overhaul the nation’s immigration system In a Washington Post column, the two legislators outlined a plan that should lower the decibel level of immigrants’ advocates who have voiced their frustration with members of Congress and the President for failing so far to make good on campaign promises to enact immigration reform. President Obama immediately congratulated the senators for producing “a promising, bipartisan framework which can and should be the basis for moving forward.” To the extent that publication of a newspaper op-ed article can signal progress, it offers a glimmer of hope that immigration reform might actually be in the offing, although its timing suggests that the immediate goal was to deflect likely verbal attacks during and after Sunday’s rally.

The two senators have outlined a four-point plan that, while vague on details, attempts to resurrect immigration reform proposals that were put forth but rejected in 2007. Schumer and Graham’s plan has “four pillars: requiring biometric Social Security cards to ensure that illegal workers cannot get jobs; fulfilling and strengthening our commitments on border security and interior enforcement; creating a process for admitting temporary workers; and implementing a tough but fair path to legalization for those already here.”

As was the case in 2007, the blueprint attempts to offer something for all sides—a carrot and stick approach that might appease immigration reform advocates but is unlikely to win over critics, particularly in the current economic climate. Restrictionist groups such as NumbersUSA will simply not go along with any “path to legalization,” no matter how “tough and fair” it might be. Ditto for plans to cater to the business community by setting up a system for “future flows” of low- and high-skilled workers. Biometric social security cards are likely to raise the ire of civil liberties advocates, as they have in the past. And, both immigrant rights and business groups have justifiably complained that a worker identification system is on the one hand unreliable, and, on the other could lead to racial discrimination in hiring.

But, even with its compromises and weaknesses, a plan for comprehensive immigration reform is long overdue. It is unconscionable that 11 million or more people live in the shadows—most of them welcomed during economic good times when we needed their labor, but now, with the economic downturn, considered expendable commodities.

The real problem, however, is that as long as the legislative stalemate over comprehensive immigration reform continues, a humane legalization program, such as the one that President Reagan signed in 1986, is impossible. As a result, the default executive policy embraced by the administration is a continuation of President Bush’s stern enforcement strategy. With the growing assault from the right, a focus on immigration enforcement might appear to be a politically pragmatic way of appeasing critics, but it does a disservice to the millions of voters who had a right to expect more from this President and this Congress. It’s encouraging that President Obama is urging Schumer and Graham “to translate their framework into a legislative proposal” and asking “Congress to act at the earliest possible opportunity.” But if he is sincere, he needs to join in spirit with the demonstrators on the Washington Mall on Sunday and put on the pressure.

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Immigration Reform: The Time is Now! Meets Legislative Reality

Hundreds of people who jammed into a Los Angeles union hall for a town hall meeting about immigration reform on Saturday morning got a bargain. Expecting to hear from just one influential member of the House of Representatives, audience members ended up getting two messages for the price of one.

Rep. Xavier Becerra

Rep. Xavier Becerra. Photo by Jeffrey Kaye.

An idealistic Democratic Congressman, Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles, shared a podium with the more pragmatic version of himself. One person embodying two realities: a longtime proponent of immigration reform and a realist experienced in vote counting.

The rally was called “2010: The Year of Immigration Reform Town Hall.” Sponsored by community and labor advocates of immigration reform, the meeting was held at the offices of the Long Term Care Workers Union, a branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents more immigrant workers than any other union in the United States.

As the gathering got underway, the multi-ethnic crowd was pumped. Organizers distributed special headsets so that audience members could hear interpreters providing simultaneous translations into Spanish, English, Armenian, and Chinese. Close to where I was sitting, students, mostly girls, from the Social Justice Academy at Hollywood High School wearing “Legalize L.A.” t-shirts, applauded as speakers were introduced.

But, from the beginning, calls to action, announcements about forthcoming rallies and marches, and passionate pleas about the pressing need for immigration reform seemed tempered by reality. The town hall’s moderator, Angelica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), announced that two of the invited guests whose pictures had graced the event poster – Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) – had scheduling conflicts and so would not be appearing (Waxman has a safe seat, but Boxer may face a serious challenge from whoever wins the GOP primary). And before Becerra showed up, Salas, clearly anticipating that the Congressman might deliver a somber caution, coached the packed room on how to respond if Becerra demonstrated any inclination to extend the battle for immigration reform beyond 2010.

“I want to hear from you guys: ‘The time is now!’” The audience chanted responsively. Salas repeated the instruction. “What are you going to say? ‘The time is now!’” And again, for emphasis: “If someone says, ‘We have to wait,’ what are you going to say?” The students near me along with the rest of the crowd got the point: “The time is now!” they yelled.

Becerra took the stage after other speakers pressed the point. A tearful 15 year old named Beatríz told of her suicide attempt after immigration agents came to deport her mother. UCLA’s Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda summarized a report he recently released arguing that the United States could gain from legalizing illegal immigrants. “We are on the side, not only of justice, but economic benefit,” he declared. CHIRLA organizer Rey Barrera enthusiastically described the work of Reform Immigration for America in generating support for an immigration reform bill.

By contrast, Becerra seemed ready to downplay expectations. The son of immigrants (“every day my father helped build America,” he said) and the vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, spoke forthrightly about the chances for immigration reform. “We don’t yet have the momentum,” he explained. As if on cue, the girls from Hollywood High chanted almost in a stage whisper, “The time is now!”

Becerra continued his theme, comparing the quest for immigration reform to the civil rights movement. “It didn’t happen overnight,” he explained, providing his view of what he called “the naked truth.”

“It will not be easy, but it will come,” he said. “In the House of Representatives, I firmly believe that we will have the votes to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” he continued. As the crowd applauded, Becerra described a more complete picture of reality. “But there’s always a ‘but,’” he said. “In the Senate, I can’t guarantee you that there are the votes. And principally I can’t guarantee you that there are the votes because in the Senate, a dysfunctional Senate, we need a super-majority to get anything done…The Republicans in the Senate have decided to make every vote in the Senate a supermajority vote. You can’t sneeze in the Senate without asking for 60 votes. That’s why health care reform hasn’t become law.”

Becerra, a co-sponsor of the immigration reform bill recently introduced in the House, explained that while some members of Congress are receptive to the idea of immigration reform, “they don’t feel it in Washington, D.C. the way you feel it. They don’t feel this in some parts of this country the way you and Beatríz feel this,” he repeated, referring to the teenager who had preceded him at the podium.

Frustrated questioners asked him about the delays and about whether the President’s election promise to bring illegal immigrants in from the shadows was still in play. Becerra cited other domestic priorities – health care reform and jobs.
“He hears a lot from people who say we need immigration reform,” Becerra said, “but I don’t believe –” At that point, I couldn’t hear the rest of his sentence. It was interrupted as the girls of Hollywood High started a chorus that, as it was picked up by others throughout the room, drowned out Becerra’s words: “The time is now! The time is now!” It lasted for 50 seconds, and Becerra stood quietly.

“I agree,” he finally said as the chanting ended with applause. “I agree. Now, we just have to convince a majority of the House and Senate that the time is now. That’s the problem. We have to convince a majority.”

As he cautioned patience, Becerra asked the crowd to encourage friends and co-workers elsewhere in the country to contact their legislators, saying lawmakers need to know that support for immigration reform exists in places “where they’re not expecting it.”

After he finished, one of the students behind me, Leslie, explained her own frustration. Although she is a citizen, her sister and brother are in the country illegally. Brought here by their parents, her sibling and many of her friends can’t attend college, and so they perform menial jobs for cash. Feeling vulnerable, they can’t complain, she said, so they get paid less than other workers. Her aunt was arrested by immigration authorities and is under house arrest as her case moves through the immigration court. Leslie’s family typifies the precarious existence faced by millions of people living in the shadows who also feel, “The time is now!”

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