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Editorial: Myths on immigration muddy the debate
Policies against sanctuaries, crime play up false narratives meant to stoke fear, emotion
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Last week, the Gainesville Campus of the University of North Georgia was the site of a community forum offered by the Latino Student Association to discuss rights students and others have when confronted by law enforcement. Gwinnett County state Rep. Brenda Lopez, an attorney specializing in immigration, discussed legal options people have in such cases.

Some may question if it’s wise to advise people how to skirt the law, even if the goal was merely to inform them of their legal rights. Beyond that, it illustrates the fear running through the Latino community over changes in immigration policy, perceived or otherwise. Though the Obama administration deported more immigrants than any other, a harsher tone from the current White House has many worried over what comes next.

On many topics championed by politicians, it’s important to separate facts from rhetoric created to fit a certain narrative and point of view. On illegal immigration, the goal seems to be to stir sentiment in favor of stricter law enforcement.

There’s no real need to fan those flames; until leaders in Washington can somehow agree on a comprehensive plan to deal with the 11 million or more undocumented foreigners in the U.S. ­— don’t hold your breath — the laws in place should be enforced.

Those who are found to be in the country illegally can face deportation when apprehended for any reason, be it a serious crime or a burned-out tail light. The law is the law, and until it’s changed, needs to be applied fairly. But that doesn’t mean stoking fears with false ideas is needed to make that case.

Take first the debate over so-called sanctuary cities or campuses, based on the idea undocumented immigrants can find haven in friendly locales that protect them from deportation. In reality, there is no such place; in no city, county, state or college campus in America is anyone exempt from the law. Federal agents can knock on any door, at any time, and arrest someone suspected of crimes, which includes being in the country illegally, or review the status of anyone in custody.

The “sanctuary cities” tag merely describes local governments and law agencies that choose not to cooperate or provide resources to federal authorities in applying immigration law. Many simply don’t want the extra burden, or worry such compliance can spark distrust within the minority community. Even then, they are limited in what they can avoid doing. For instance, when federal arrest warrants are issued, officers are obligated to serve them. And under the Secure Communities program, arrest databases are automatically shared with federal agencies.

The Trump administration is appealing a California court’s ban on its attempt to withhold federal funds to governments that refuse to cooperate with immigration enforcement. What’s interesting is that the administration and the court are suddenly on opposite sides of an argument long favored by constitutional conservatives: the notion of states rights, embodied in the 10th Amendment. Also at issue is whether the executive branch can force local law authorities to cooperate with the feds by threatening to withhold money already allocated by Congress.

States are making their own political statements. California lawmakers are considering a law to prohibit local police in any jurisdiction from becoming involved in federal immigration cases, while Texas weighs a plan that would force local agencies to assist immigration officials.

The degree of cooperation federal agencies can expect from local law enforcement is a worthy debate, and ideally should be applied consistently from one place to another. No one is above or outside the law, and all public safety agencies need to respect that premise. Nevertheless, the idea any locale is a true “sanctuary” free from legal consequences remains a misnomer.

A similar debate looms over the idea college campuses can serve as such “sanctuaries,” based on the same misconception. Colleges and universities aren’t city-states exempt from federal, state or local laws. Last week, Gov. Nathan Deal signed a law to pull state funding for scholarships and research from any private colleges in Georgia that don’t cooperate with immigration authorities. No colleges have yet done so, and thus it’s mostly symbolic and preventive.

And note President Donald Trump recently said his administration won’t target “dreamers,” children of undocumented foreigners brought to the U.S. at a young age recently protected by the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program. That would seem to cover many students who lack legal documentation.

And one more mirage: Last week, the Homeland Security director announced plans for a Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement office to inform victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants of their status and proceedings. Why is this necessary? Data show immigrants, legal and otherwise, are less prone to commit crimes against others than the native-born population, so it’s hardly a widespread problem. Even then, victims of all crimes deserve the same treatment, as do suspected criminals, domestic or imported. This seems another way to stir up the notion that a large number of immigrants are dangerous criminals, which just isn’t so.

Yes, there have been high-profile crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. The best way to prevent such is to send leaders to Washington to craft an immigration policy that protects the borders, registers migrant workers who seek to enter and weeds out violent criminals before they take root in the U.S. That should have happened decades ago. Closing the barn door now with look-see measures is pointless.

These myths pumped up for political purposes don’t advance what should be a serious discussion on immigration that addresses its legal, economic and humane aspects. They just throw more false narratives — a.k.a., “fake news” — into the mix and muddy the waters even further.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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