Words matter even more in the immigration debate

It is virtually impossible to have a thoughtful, nuanced debate around immigration policy in the United States. Americans who are paying attention to what is happening in every town (including Allentown) are angry and fearful to levels that I haven’t seen in my lifetime.


And how can we not be? I’ve listened to the horrifying audio recordings of children being ripped away from their mothers, and I read the president’s own use of the word “infestation” to describe people whose only sin was to look upon the Statue of Liberty for salvation. I, too, am angry and fearful. 


In my 10 years as an elected official, I have learned that words matter greatly. This is not an easy lesson, and it is one that I am constantly reminded of whenever I spout off without thinking first.  


One of the many reasons why the immigration debate is so divisive is that even simple phrases or concepts like “enforce all laws” mean something different to different groups of people. 


I mention this specific phrase because “enforce all laws” was the crux of a recent column about immigration that appeared in The Morning Call. It was argued that the United States’ constantly changing, haphazard and, let’s be completely frank, race-based immigration policies are separate from their enforcement.


“Enforce all laws” was the justification to demand that local and state police departments cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This is too simple of a concept because it completely ignores how our government actually works.


While visiting elementary schools, I ask the students if they know who I work for. In the most innocent way possible, they almost always say “Donald Trump” or “The Mayor.” My bosses are the people who live in the 22nd Legislative District and since neither President Trump nor Mayor O’Connell reside there, I don’t work for either of them. Now, I will happily work with federal or local governments and often do, but my job is to use my judgment on behalf of the roughly 62,000 people I serve.  


This is the basic foundation of states’ rights and local control – in other words, American federalism, or what most middle schoolers learn in civics class. 


Similarly, neither the Allentown Police Department nor the Pennsylvania State Police work for the federal government. They work for residents of Allentown and Pennsylvania. 


To be clear, they are required to enforce the U.S. Constitution, but in this most important of documents, there is no clause that requires state or local police departments be conscripted by the federal government to enforce immigration policies. 


“Enforce all laws” completely takes away police officers’ judgment or the will of local and state policymakers. This is too simple a concept, and one that completely ignores how real life works.


Police are trained and relied upon to use their decision making abilities. There are thousands of instances where an underage person gets caught drinking alcohol and is told to pour it out. There are many cases where someone found with a nominal amount of marijuana has not been arrested and told to hand it over. No arrests are made.


The people stopped at the border and throughout our communities – the people who will be most impacted by the simplistic suggestion to “enforce all laws” – are almost always people of color. This is in stark contrast to the high school kids who are not charged with underage drinking or marijuana possession. They are rarely kids of color. 


And this leads me to the most important point. “Enforce all laws” might seem like a simple concept, but it is often used as a dog whistle to advance racist policies and goals. 


Words matter, and their weight is exponentially increased in times like these. We must resist the urge to fall back upon simple catch phrases and lame justifications that further this xenophobic atmosphere of chaos and hate.


And please don’t come at me with some trivial argument about “political correctness.” Children are being forcibly separated from their parents. People are living in inhumane conditions. And what makes us the United States of America is being eviscerated in front of our very eyes. We must do – and say – better.