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U.S. immigration policy missing a key element: The human factor

Immigration reform must shift its focus from an argument about defensive measures to one about basic human rights, contends Alvaro Heurta.

U.S. immigration policy missing a key element: The human factor

Cover of Alvaro Huerta's new book (courtesy of San Diego State University Press).

"We have to humanize the [immigration] issue. Most importantly, we must insist on humane immigration policies,” said Alvaro Huerta.

by Jeanne DiNovis
International Institute, UCLA, October 15, 2013 — Immigration reform must become a human issue, said Alvaro Huerta (UCLA, B.A. 2003, M.A. 2006). A professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, Heurta spoke at the Chicano Studies Research Center on October 9th about his new book, “Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm” (San Diego State University Press, 2013).  
Speaking largely from a personal point of view, Huerta argued, “We have to humanize the issue. Most importantly, we must insist on humane immigration policies.” In order to do that, he wrote a book comprised of nonfiction stories and essays compiled from his own experience and that of other immigrant families. 
These stories, he argued, are essential when addressing the issue of immigration reform because immigration concerns people. Huerta is the son of immigrant parents who worked manual-labor jobs and sacrificed to make it possible for Alvaro and his other siblings to have better opportunities. 
The stories of his and other families in the book show, he explained, that immigrants are historically hard-working people who sacrifice for the benefit of their children. “For the immigrant there’s no such thing as a dirty job,” said Huerta, “because in every type of honest work, there’s dignity.” 
Immigrants, argued the speaker, are amazing people with tremendous courage and determination. “I [wrote] this book for the dreamers — for the undocumented youth. It is they who have showed courage,” he remarked. The children of undocumented immigrants are now leaders in the immigration reform struggle, he continued, and will continue to fight for reforms that benefit them as well as their parents.
Reframing the immigration debate
Huerta was highly critical of current framing of the immigration debate, in which he claimed politicians base reform on the theory that there are two types of undocumented immigrants: deserving and undeserving. 

Alvaro Huerta, professor of city and regional planning, UC Berkeley. (Photo: Jeanne DiNovis/UCLA.)
In this scenario, the children of undocumented immigrants deserve amnesty, as they were brought here and did not make a conscious decision to enter the country illegally. The parents, however, are at fault, plus they are a burden to American society and must be sent back to their home countries. This framing of the issue is itself a violation of human rights, argued the speaker.
Conservative politicians argue that undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are lazy, receive welfare and other benefits from the government and are inclined to participate in criminal activity, noted Huerta. He vehemently disputed these claims, citing studies that show immigrants are less often involved in criminal activity than American citizens because they risk deportation if arrested. 
Immigrants give more to the U.S. system than they take from it, insisted Heurta. In addition, immigrants have strong family values which they pass down to their children. “They do not depend on the state, they depend on the family,” he asserted.  
Perhaps most importantly, the speaker argued that immigrants are the unappreciated work force of this country. Describing them as people “working in the shadows,” Heurta said the labor of immigrants affords [U.S. citizens] the opportunities to spend their time studying, researching or playing golf. 
Immigrants are not responsible for the economic problems in the United States, insisted the speaker, and should not be used as scapegoats for these problems. “Immigrants should not be ashamed of who they are and who their parents are,” he contended. In his view, they are an important part of U.S. society and should be recognized as such. “They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” he said.
Seeing immigrants as people first
Politicians from both parties are guilty of mistreating immigrants, said Huerta. Republicans, he argued, continually target immigrants as a threat because they are an easy political target and cannot protest their mistreatment. Democrats, on the other hand, claim they only go after immigrants who are violent offenders, he said, which is untrue.  
President Obama's speeches about comprehensive immigration reform and welcoming immigrants to this country starkly contradict his actual policies, observed the speaker. The president deported 1.6 million people in his first term, noted Huerta, commenting, “This is not a just policy.”
Democratic leaders, insisted Huerta, need to reframe the popular view of this vital issue by convincing the public of the pivotal role played by immigrants in America’s economic and social prosperity. 
Commentator Juán Gomez-Qiñones, UCLA professor of history, seconded Huerta’s clear message: Immigrants are people and must be treated as such. Immigrants are an indispensable part of the U.S. economy, he observed, yet are exploited and always “at the mercy of anyone who wants to rip them off.” Huerta’s book is, he concluded, a tribute to the difficulties that these people face and a call to make the immigration debate a human issue.