Kavitha Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, is author "Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West."
We can all agree that there's a hierarchy of crimes. Running a stoplight is not the same as, say, running an elaborate drug empire.
But in the aftermath of the controversial Arizona immigration law, and as New York prepares to join dozens of states nationwide in implementing a federal program designed to find and deport unauthorized immigrants convicted of "serious criminal offenses," we just can't seem to agree on a hierarchy of crimes for unauthorized immigrants.
This summer, the Obama administration quietly began ramping up deployment of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Secure Communities program. In February, the program was in place in 116 jurisdictions in 16 states. At latest count, it's up to 544 jurisdictions in 27 states. The administration hopes to go nationwide by 2013.
The program enables police to collect fingerprints of anyone picked up on any offense and run them through federal immigration databases. The intent is to identify and deport major criminals who are here illegally. But of the 47,000 unauthorized immigrants deported under the program so far, 79 percent had no criminal record and were picked up on minor offenses - traffic violations, trespassing, disorderly behavior and the like.
Immigrant rights advocates say the program will not only contribute to racial profiling and alienate immigrant communities from law enforcement, but will divert valuable public resources away from going after criminals who pose real threats to society.
For many citizens, illegal is illegal, and whether an unauthorized immigrant is cited for speeding or accused of murder, his first and greatest crime was to enter or stay on in the country illegally. In a recent study, 70 percent of New Yorkers polled said that illegal immigrants in the state are a problem.
But who, exactly, poses the problem? According to a 2007 study conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations, unauthorized immigration is economically advantageous to U.S. employers and the U.S. economy as a whole, since it offers low-cost labor in a variety of lines of work, as well as tax revenues from people who make limited use of public resources. New York State's estimated 550,000 undocumented immigrants are not just agricultural laborers and domestic workers, but entrepreneurs, caregivers and professionals. Many live middle-class lives.
They know they've broken immigration laws, but many see themselves as contributing members of a diverse society, pursuing the American dream and tacitly accepted by the legal immigrants and citizens with whom they live and work.
Of course, widespread illegal immigration has led to increases in human trafficking, cross-border drug trade, and wage and physical abuse of people who have no legal recourse. No system that systematically violates human rights or destabilizes society by enabling widespread criminal enterprise can or should be tolerated.
That may be why an increasing number of Americans support comprehensive immigration reform. But as we continue to discuss how and what to reform, we must first confront why our society enables and our economy relies on unauthorized labor.
Obama has emphasized that comprehensive immigration reform would give the "right" kinds of unauthorized immigrants the opportunity to pay a fee and take steps toward becoming integrated members of society. But implementation of the Secure Communities program - far more sweeping than the Arizona legislation the president so roundly condemned - sends the message that all unauthorized immigrants are the "wrong" kind.
This places the blame of unauthorized immigration squarely on the immigrants themselves, not on the many American employers and consumers who enjoy their low-cost services. If all unauthorized immigrants are criminals, then we as a society might well be accomplices in their crime.