By: Gabriel Delaney
Comprehensive immigration reform is a policy accomplishment that has eluded President Obama thus far in his presidency. The whole of Congress has stalled on the issue, leaving behind more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in a state of quasi-American citizenship that neither grants them a right to a free life nor holds them accountable for paying into the very system that in many ways sustains their fettered livelihoods. But all this is about to change. The 2012 presidential election was a watershed moment for the Latino community. For the first time in American electoral history Latinos made up 10% of the electorate, no doubt propelling Mr. Obama to victory in certain battleground states including Florida, Nevada, Colorado, and the prized Ohio, where 82% of the Latino vote went to the president. It should be clear to all that the Latino voice is one that refuses to go unheard; it has changed the face of presidential elections for the foreseeable future, and it has prompted both newly-elected and re-elected leaders alike to finally seek redress for an issue that has confronted this country and its people for far too long.
While immigration reform may not have been the biggest issue in the election, the fact is that it matters to a key segment of voters, whose political clout is growing with every election. The number of registered Latino voters has increased 26% in the past four years to 12.2 million, or 8.7% of all eligible voters. Consistent with this steady increase in Latino electoral presence, the number of registered Latino voters is expected to reach 16 million by 2016, or approximately 11% of the eligible voting population. By now, it should be clear to all who make politics their living that the Latino vote matters; that the issues of the everyday Latino-American can, thus, no longer be seen by those in power or by those seeking power as secondary matters.
President Obama promised to push for immigration reform before the 2008 election and had to answer tough questions from Latinos during his campaign about why that did not occur. Of course, the failure to achieve reasonable policy change on such a divisive issue as immigration reform, in the midst of yet unraveling economic turmoil worldwide and geopolitical strife in the Middle East, should not come as a surprise to many whose eyes do not wander far from the political arena. Coupled with these frustrations, there is clear Latino disillusionment with the stalled Dream Act in Congress. The proposed law would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants ages 14-30. While President Obama signed an executive order that defers deportation for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, it does nothing to change current immigration law and most importantly, it does nothing to solve the larger pandemic of the more than 11 million undocumented persons currently living within the United States.
To be sure, immigration reform is not the most politically profitable of subjects in that it mainly affects the very poor and those who may lack the education and the mastery of the English language necessary to get ahead in this country. In recent years, there has been a lack of political consensus not only on the issue of immigration, but on many critical problems facing the nation–the burgeoning national debt, healthcare reform, jobs and the economy, civil rights, war, peace, and much more. The fact that division on these issues exists within our political structure is not an inherently bad thing; the problem, however, arises when the force of intransigence overwhelms the force of compromise and, as a result, the issues of yesteryear are never confronted. The ultimate loser in these political battles is not any party, but rather the American people. In other words, the more that politics derails debate on the subject of immigration reform, the more undocumented children are left to suffer a life without the freedoms they are promised by this nation. These are children who have lived in this country for their entire lives, children who pledge their allegiance to the flag every day. Any further lack of action by the government on this issue would simply be unacceptable.
But, despite the partisan gridlock of previous years the reason that comprehensive immigration reform may now have its best chance of becoming law is that for the first time in a long time, the issue has bipartisan attention. With the help of the ever-growing Latino vote, both parties have a vested interest in including, not alienating, this formerly overlooked segment of the American population. Long gone are the days of equating the Latino electorate with only Los Angeles, Miami or Houston. To talk about Latinos today, we need to talk about Denver, Cincinnati, Dallas, and Des Moines. Latinos are not only growing in popular size, but they are also becoming more geographically diverse. For Democrats, this has thus far meant the promise of an exponentially expanding base that gradually makes the white, evangelical vote (typically aligned with the Republican Party) less and less significant in national elections. For Republicans, this means a potential relegation to second-class partisanship if the party platform continues to be, or, at least, be seen as hostile to not only Latinos, but also to immigrants in general.
Yet, even if bipartisan support does exist in Congress, the question for Latinos and the broader American public naturally is: what would comprehensive immigration reform actually look like and who, in turn, would it effect besides the obvious immigrant population? In 2010, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) forged a bipartisan blueprint for reform, which they described in a joint op-ed in The Washington Post. The senators had four pillars from their 2010 plan that will likely inform discussion in Congress in the near future. One: the creation of a new Social Security card that includes biometric data, such as a fingerprint or an eye scan. The purpose of the updated card is not so that the government can add yet another layer of private citizen information to their database, but rather “to ensure,” according to Sen. Graham, “that illegal workers cannot get jobs.” Second: the strengthening of the border and the immigration enforcement effort. Third: the formation of a temporary working program, whether through a working visa or some other legal instrument, so as to not displace illegal immigrants who are already here and have established respectable lives. And fourth, a “tough, but fair” path to legalization and citizenship for those illegal aliens whom already call this nation their home. The senators are hoping to reintroduce their plan in the next congressional session, according Senator Schumer in an interview he gave to Meet the Press the Sunday after the election. Whether broad support for these seemingly reasonable “pillars” is observed in Congress remains to be seen, but one thing is almost certain: immigration reform will get done in the year 2013.
One, however, must not overlook the existence of the serious obstacles in the way of meeting these changes in immigration law. For example, there is no denying that there are large pockets of American culture that are, quite frankly, xenophobic. These communities are bastions of American nativism; groups like the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR), United for a Sovereign America (USA), and the American Immigration Control Foundation have lobbied for some of the most radical immigration policies this country has ever seen. Make no mistake. These groups are powerful and well financed; the anti-immigration lobby will, without doubt, put pressure on politicians to continue their procrastination on the issue. Further complicating the debate is the fact that the immigration system is largely incomprehensible to all but those who are immersed in it. Americans feel strongly about immigration, but in reality few people truly understand how the system works. The only remedy to either of these barriers towards progress is education. The American public cannot be oscillated by the sound-bite arguments that cross the airwaves and make their way to our dinner tables; the debate we must have on this issue need be one of intellect, reason, and compassion. Only then can we be sure that the rights of all are secured and that, as citizens, we fulfill our civic duties to hold our elected leaders accountable in any way we can.
The dream of inclusive immigration reform is no longer a matter of if, but when; when the subject assumes the due diligence it deserves from Congress and the media, it will be important that either party, especially the Republican Party, not follow, but lead the debate. If Republicans are seen as standing in the way of said reform, they will automatically be viewed by the media and by Latinos as nativist bigots who only affirm the stigma that the Republican Party is today still the “white man’s party.” Of course, such a gross oversimplification of the party and the politics would not be a fair, intellectual assumption, but that is reality. The question is whether the GOP understands that it needs to adapt how its message is communicated in order to recover the ground it has lost among Latinos.
There is evidence that the Republican Party is, in fact, in the process of adopting more inclusive immigration policies. On November 27th of this passed year, Senators Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz) introduced what was dubbed the ACHIEVE Act, which would offer a pathway to permanent residency to young undocumented immigrants (between the ages of 14-28) brought to the U.S. by their parents and are either seeking a higher education or service in the military. The bill stops short of providing a separate pathway to citizenship, but it “gets the ball rolling on a sensible approach to immigration reform,” says Senator Kyl. To the senator’s credit, this does provide the public with an inkling that, just maybe, the Republican Party may indeed be willing to move towards a party platform that is more inclusive of illegal immigrants. Yet, the ACHIEVE Act would not grant a pathway to citizenship beyond what already exists for nonimmigrant visa holders (marriage of a U.S. citizen or obtaining a green card). The undocumented youth in question would not be eligible for federal public welfare or any other government assistance, including federal student loans. Immigrants who complete a degree within six years or serve four years in the military would be eligible for a four-year nonimmigrant work visa and upon completion of that, could obtain a permanent nonimmigrant visa. But they could be never called citizens. They could never cast a vote even though they would be paying taxes. Put plainly, they could never truly enjoy the benefits of being an American despite the contributions they may make—both fiscal and social—to our society and to our way of life.
Politics aside, it is important that one draw attention to those who must be the true cross-bearers of this movement for the refashioning of immigration policy in the United States: the American people. This does not mean that immigration is simply and solely a Latin issue. True, Latinos have always defended the rights of their community and immigration is no exception; but that does not mean that this civil rights issue should not also encompass the attention and sense of civic duty of all Americans. The truth of the matter is that we are all immigrants and America is and never has been a place for one race. We are a patchwork heritage—we are a collection of races, creeds, ethnicities, genders, political affiliations, and sexual orientations. Each year the United States accepts nearly 1 million legal immigrants to its shores. No other nation in the world comes close to that number. The point being, immigration is as hallowed a tradition of the American experience as any we have to offer; it is the story of this nation of immigrants who came here with nothing but the desire to pursue a better way of life that is so often trumpeted as the “essence of America.” The issue of immigration reform, therefore, should underscore the unique political opportunity we have before us, as Americans, to reaffirm our values and make good on our promise to be ever-pursuant of a more perfect, more inclusive union. That is not a conservative idea nor is it a liberal idea. It is the American idea.
Should this be the attitude our leaders espouse, then there will be no doubt that not only will comprehensive immigration reform soon become reality, but we may once again see the seemingly forgotten culture of political compromise flourish in the halls of Congress.
Photo credit: Flickr user AaronBerkovitch
This article originally appeared in the winter edition of PPR on March 11, 2013.