Immigration laws should factor in compassion and families

STATE EDITORIAL

The Kentucky Standard

Most Americans would likely agree that federal laws and policies should not harm families.

But that is exactly what is taking place with the federal government’s emphasis on deporting undocumented immigrants, as illustrated by a Bardstown man’s forced removal to Mexico late last month.

Erick Alberto Cortez Olvera came to this country when he was 15 years old, and lived here for 20 years. He met and fell in love with a local woman, whom he married and has two children with. He has also acted as a father to her oldest son.

They live in a nice home that Cortez provided for through his work as a concrete foreman. For most of his years in this country, Cortez lived like millions of other law-abiding people in the shadows, not knowing from one minute to the next when a chance encounter with law enforcement might be his undoing.

For Cortez, that moment came in 2010, when he was pulled over in Hillview, ostensibly because of excessive tinting on his vehicle’s windows, a law that evidence has shown has been abused by some police officers as a means for profiling either the young or minorities. Cortez was charged with several misdemeanors and traffic citations, and one felony of having false identification papers. The criminal charges against him were dismissed by prosecutors, and Cortez pleaded guilty to the traffic violations.

But that encounter also drew the attention of immigration enforcement, and removal proceedings were started on Cortez. On June 16, 2014, a federal immigration judge ordered Cortez removed from the country. On March 31, 2016, his request to reopen his immigration case was denied. But he was able to get a stay on that removal as he sought other legal avenues to remain with his family.

Critics of undocumented immigrants often say they should just “get in line” with everybody else and go through the legal process. But this country’s immigration laws are so confusing, contradictory and complex, and involve so many different federal agencies, that many of those seeking to become legal get lost in the bureaucracy. It has been this way for years. In 1987, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit described our immigration laws as “second in complexity only to the internal revenue code.” Over the intervening three decades, it has only become more so.

Enhanced immigration reform was one of the key issues Donald Trump emphasized — often with his characteristically inflammatory rhetoric that preyed on people’s fears — in the 2016 presidential campaign. Since taking office, his administration has taken several steps to radically alter the life of undocumented immigrants in this country.

President Barrack Obama earned the nickname “Deporter in Chief” for the record number of removals under his tenure, by some calculations (even comparing removals or deportations between different administrations is complicated under our laws). But his administration defined priorities to focus on those persons in the country without permission who had committed serious and violent crimes. It allowed what is legally referred to as “prosecutorial discretion,” which could buy good people who were contributors to their communities time to navigate the legal quagmire of our immigration system.

Not anymore. Trump has delivered on his pledge to crack down on undocumented immigrants across the board. Numbers from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement during his first six months as president show that prosecutorial discretion has all but evaporated. Arrests of non-criminals have skyrocketed. As White House spokesman Sean Spicer once described it, the “shackles” have “come off” immigration enforcement officers.

A sovereign nation has responsibility to protect its borders, there is no question.

But is it people like Erick Cortez that the American people want removed from our country? Is he the person Trump voters were envisioning? Would those voters who cast their ballots approve of breaking apart his family, separating a loving father from his two American citizen children and wife?

It is past time that Congress passed comprehensive immigration reform. Senate Republicans have endorsed a plan that would cut legal immigration by half and places an emphasis on merit-based skills. But that measure does not address the millions of undocumented immigrants who have lived here for years doing the work most Americans either can’t or won’t, like pouring concrete, roofing our homes and picking our fruits and vegetables, just to name a few.

It seems like every time a lawmaker tries to talk about an earned path to citizenship for these people, they face charges of offering “amnesty.”

But “amnesty” is nothing more than a talking point meant to polarize and divide voters. What we need to keep in mind is that these laws, and Congress’ inaction, are hurting human beings, and more than just the immigrants in many cases, but their families, often American citizens.