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Find Diversity in the Immigration Reform Debate-Roll Call

By Rep. Yvette Clarke
Special to Roll Call

For many Americans, the term “immigration reform” evokes images of Central American and Mexican migrants crossing the rivers of the U.S.-Mexican border by day and running across the landlocked southwestern borders by night. It is true that securing the U.S.-Mexican border is a very important policy objective — and it is clear that Central Americans and Mexican-Americans make up a significant portion of the immigrant population. According to a July 2009 Pew Hispanic Center report, Mexico is by far the leading country of origin for U.S. immigrants, accounting for one-third (32 percent) of all foreign-born residents and two-thirds (66 percent) of Hispanic immigrants.

However, it is an inaccurate depiction of the large numbers of immigrants among us and greatly skews the scope, breadth and depth of the debate. I have witnessed the media, legislators and many in the general American public scapegoat one nationality, when in fact there is a greater, more diverse context of immigrants within our nation’s population.

As our nation focuses its lens on immigration reform, I am challenging us to expand the face of immigration, adding new dimensions to the unfolding debate. Immigration reform advocates must embrace the diversity of those who are affected by reform and understand that this debate cannot solely rest on the shoulders of our Latino brothers and sisters. Comprehensive immigration reform must encompass the dreams and aspirations of all people who seek to obtain the American dream. The advocates for comprehensive immigration reform must reflect perspectives of the diversity of all those who have entered our borders and seek relief in the midst of a broken system and nativist anti-immigrant sentiment.

Nowhere is this diversity more evident than in the 11th Congressional district of New York, which encompasses central Brooklyn. My district is one of the most diverse in the country, full of first- and second-generation immigrants from all over the world. According to the Census Bureau’s 2005-2007 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates, the total population of my district is 658,512. Approximately 39 percent of the residents in my district are foreign-born immigrants from Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and especially the Caribbean.

The Caribbean population makes up roughly 21 percent of the foreign-born population in the 11th district. In fact, 66,426 Hispanic immigrants have settled in my district and make up less than 10 percent of the foreign-born population. Approximately 47 percent of the immigrant population that settled in my district between 1980 and 2008 has yet to obtain naturalized citizenship. They are currently legal permanent residents, have some other legal visa designation or are undocumented.

More and more of these individuals and families are victimized by our enforcement-dominated, dysfunctional immigration system. The road to citizenship has been just as long and arduous for these immigrant groups as it has been for Latino immigrants who have been systematically scapegoated in our national reform debate.

Our nation’s fixation on Latinos as the target immigrant group has resulted in a skewed depiction of the diversity of our immigrant population. Not only has it perpetuated stereotypes that have marginalized a large segment of our civil society, it has warped and distorted our immigration reform debate. In order to fix our broken immigration system and establish true comprehensive reform, we must recognize that the experiences, obstacles and goals are shared by all immigrants and stakeholders alike.

We must never forget that our American heritage has transformed our land into what former New York Mayor David Dinkins (D) called a “gorgeous mosaic.” The diversity in our collective history has allowed us to embrace those coming to our shores, in order to strengthen, build, and contribute to a better and stronger nation. In this regard, we have an obligation to ensure that the immigration reform debate mirrors the diverse faces of America.

The face of comprehensive immigration reform must include those Eastern Europeans settling in communities like Brighton Beach and Coney Island in Brooklyn. It must include the face of the Asian community in Flushing, Queens, the long established Latino enclave in Washington Heights of Manhattan and the continental African population of the South Bronx. I, too, am the face of comprehensive immigration reform, a second-generation American of immigrant parents. The debate must include a face like mine, representing the countless immigrants from the Caribbean who have a history of contributing to the fabric of our nation and reflect the promise of America.

The diversity and effectiveness of the immigration reform debate will heavily rely on the level of support the idea has. My esteemed colleague, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), is introducing his bill today, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act. It is imperative that advocacy groups, religious leaders, individual stakeholders and every level of government come together to support this piece of legislation and champion true reform. We must make sure that President Barack Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano are supported in their commitment to comprehensive action.

Congress must do its part to move comprehensive immigration reform legislation early next year. If we turn our backs on those law-abiding contributors to our society who come to our shores embracing the American dream, labor in rebuilding our great nation, strengthen our economy and serve honorably in our military, we turn our backs on ourselves. It is time for people of goodwill to stand for those who fear standing for themselves. God bless America.

Rep. Yvette Clarke (D) represents New York’s 11th district.