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The Line Between Us

You are members of the Immigration Justice Alliance (IJA), a cross-border organization of people from the United States and Mexico that works to promote the human rights of immigrants. You are gathered together with IJA members from both countries for a strategy planning session. Your goal during the course of this discussion is to review a variety of policies and actions that will affect the human rights of immigrants and to choose two key issues that your group will make top priority during the coming year.

Since 1994, changes in border security such as Operation Gatekeeper have made it more difficult and dangerous for migrants to cross into the United States from Mexico. Some people propose even greater border security, with more walls, more Border Patrol agents, and stiffer penalties for migrants who are caught without legal documents. Some favor amnesty for immigrants who are in the United States without documents. Some favor a "guestworker" program, along the lines of the Bracero Program that allowed millions of Mexican farmworkers to work legally in the United States between 1942 and 1964. Other proposals call for young people who are in the United States without documents to have easier access to higher education.

There is general agreement within the IJA that immigration policy should not violate the human rights of immigrants, but beyond this general commitment there is not yet agreement on the IJA's policy priorities. It might be difficult to agree on which of the two following policy issues deserve the IJA's resources and attention. As you discuss different perspectives on the following issues, be sure to consider how each serves the fundamental human rights of immigrants.


1. Increased Border Patrol

In the mid 1990s, Operation Gatekeeper pumped millions and millions of dollars into patrolling the California/Mexico border near San Diego, forcing more immigrants to cross to the United States through the harsh deserts and mountains to the east. This is especially true in Arizona, which now accounts for more than 50 percent of all apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border — more than California and New Mexico combined. This increase has led to the proposal of the Arizona Border Control Initiative, a multimillion-dollar campaign which immigration officials argue will gain "operational control" of Arizona's border and dramatically decrease the number of migrants crossing, and dying, in the desert. Border Patrol Chief Gus de la Vina claims that the extra money and manpower will give the government "an excellent shot" at closing down the border completely. Others believe that this border security program in Arizona will more likely push immigrants farther east in the same way Operation Gatekeeper did. The ABC Initiative includes 260 more agents, 28 Humvees and two new helicopters, as well as $1 million in underground sensors, at an initial cost of $10 million.

Should the IJA put its resources into preventing the expansion of Operation Gatekeeper in Arizona? Why or why not?

 2. Guestworker programs

In a Jan. 2004 speech, President George W. Bush acknowledged that the current immigration system had failed and required reform. The president proposed a guestworker visa program that would authorize Mexican nationals to remain in the United States to work for a period of up to three years. Proponents of the guestworker policy maintain that it will provide an effective means of regulating new immigrant flows, while providing a mutually beneficial relationship for U.S. industries and immigrant workers, some of whom have no interest in remaining permanently in the United States. Opponents argue that this proposal may allow hard-working, tax-paying immigrants to become a legal part of the economy, but because it is temporary and will not lead to citizenship it keeps them from full social participation —making immigrants a permanent sub-class. Opponents also argue that President Bush's guestworker program is a thinly veiled attempt to keep wages low and corporate profits high, and that it actually has little to do with helping immigrants and lots to do with helping corporations.

Should the IJA put its resources into advocating for a guestworker program, against the president's program, or for a revision of the program? Why or why not?

 3. DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act

Each year, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools. Thousands of additional graduates are children of immigrants who are legal residents. Many of these students, due to their immigration status, face a number of roadblocks in pursuing higher education. Although their families most often pay taxes and they have grown up in the United States, they lack access to in-state tuition rates, as well as the financial aid and loans that are available to their U.S.-born peers. In effect, through no fault of their own, these students are often unable to attend college. Many immigrant rights groups have worked to address what they see as unfair. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) sponsored the DREAM Act. If enacted, the DREAM Act would facilitate state efforts to offer in-state tuition and financial aid to undocumented students. It would also allow immigrant youth, who have long resided in the United States, the chance to pursue their education.

Should the IJA puts its resources into advocating for the DREAM Act? Why or why not?

4. Lawful Permanent Residency for Undocumented Immigrants

As of 2006, an estimated 9 to 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States. They can be apprehended and deported at any moment, are legally prohibited from gaining employment, and contrary to popular belief, are barred from federal benefits. Some social justice organizations advocate that undocumented immigrants be granted permission to reside in the United States permanently — legally referred to as lawful permanent residency, or a green card. One of the arguments against this is that rewarding undocumented immigrants wi th legal status would only encourage future flows of immigrants. Supporters of lawful residency argue that policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement, aggressively pushed by U.S. leaders, have had devastating effects in Mexico and have thrown people off the land and out of jobs. They argue that millions of undocumented immigrants are in this country because of reasons out of their control. Current U.S. immigration policies do not reflect this reality and therefore need to be changed.

Should the IJA put its resources into advocating for lawful permanent residency for undocumented immigrants? Why or why not?


The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is a "free" trade agreement modeled closely after NAFTA, which includes the United States, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. The Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) would extend NAFTA style free trade to the entire Western Hemisphere. Since NAFTA took effect in 1994, the number of undocumented Mexicans in the United States has more than doubled, to over 5 million. Many blame NAFTA for the loss of land and jobs that have led to increased migration and argue that CAFTA and the FTAA will have a similar effect on the people of Central and South America. These people argue that the root of so-called illegal immigration lies in policies that benefit the rich over the poor and increase inequality. They argue that if we want to reduce migration and the violation of human rights that results, the best strategy is to end unjust trade agreements and support policies that help the poor in Mexico and throughout the Americas.

Should the IJA put its resources into changing/rewriting trade agreements? Why or why not?

6. "Open Door" Immigration Policy

Because the purpose of NAFTA is to drop borders for investment and products, many have argued that it makes no sense to have free movement of trade but not of people. Indeed, this is the model that most countries of the European Union have moved to after opening their borders to trade with one another. An "Open Door" would save hundreds of lives, as no one would need to risk his or her life making a dangerous desert or mountain crossing to the United States from Mexico. Others are concerned that an Open Door would hurt Mexican communities, already suffering from immigration, and would also lead to more competition for jobs in the United States, which would decrease wages especially for low-skilled workers — including for immigrants already here.

Should the IJA put its resources into advocating for an "Open Door" immigration policy between the U.S. and Mexico? Why or why not?


Which two of these issues does your organization want as top priorities? In considering these issues, think about the following:

1. Should the IJA put its resources into efforts that will be most "successful" or into efforts that best represent the larger principles of the organization and can help educate people?

2. Is it better to focus on short-term reforms, such as the proposed guestworker program, or a long-term goal like transforming the economic conditions that force people into migration in the first place?

Last Updated Spring 2006