What a difference an election can make. After Latinos turned out in force to break hard for Obama in November, prominent Republicans and their water carriers finally drew the conclusion that should have been obvious long ago: keep bashing immigrants, and the future looks dim indeed. And so it wasn’t a complete surprise when a bipartisan group of senators—including Tea Party favorite and potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio of Florida—released a “framework” for immigration reform that included a path to citizenship. One day later, speaking at a high school in Las Vegas, an optimistic President Obama announced that “the differences are dwindling” and that “a broad consensus is emerging” on fixing our immigration system. “Now is the time,” he promised, to cheers of “¡Sí se puede!”
This moment holds the tantalizing prospect of relief for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants—but not without a price. There are two main components of “comprehensive” immigration reform: a path to citizenship, and increased enforcement of immigration laws. The former is deperately needed; the latter amounts to more of what we don’t need. Under Obama, our nation’s immigration enforcement system has grown to grotesque and gargantuan proportions. Hundreds of miles of fences and barriers have been built, drones patrol the sky, detention centers are bursting, countless families have been torn apart. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the Obama administration spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement last year—more than on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.
One theory used to justify this unprecedented buildup was that it would create the political space for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Some 1.5 million deportations later, we know this theory is false. Pumping money into Immigration and Customs Enforcement and beefing up programs like Secure Communities didn’t get us closer to a humane legalization plan; it just gave us a bloated agency that spends too much of its time chasing people whose only crime is harvesting our food and caring for our aging parents. Instead, the new space has been created by an engaged Latino electorate and the militant activism of many—including Dreamers—who reject the immigrant-bashing Republican Party and intend to hold Obama to his promise to finally move undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.
There are signs that the stars are aligning in favor of reform, but we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. The real battle begins now. At the core of any bill must be an accessible and relatively speedy path to citizenship for our undocumented neighbors. On this there is no room for compromise. The Senate framework already proposes one roadblock, preventing any legalization process until a commission of Southwestern politicians and leaders attests that the border is “truly secure.” Long-awaited relief should not be held hostage by anti-immigrant ideologues like Arizona Governor Jan Brewer. President Obama appears aware of this danger, as he wisely left such a requirement out of his guidelines for reform.
To be truly comprehensive, an immigration reform bill must also extend full rights to LGBT families and break the logjam of the 4.3 million people waiting to be reunited with their families. Much is made of undocumented immigrants going to the “back of the line,” but these lines can last decades. Any proposal that continues the bigotry of excluding LGBT people from family reunification or forces decades of waiting mocks any notion of fairness.
There is also the thorny issue of guest workers, which Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois admitted “tore us up” in earlier fights. Labor unions have traditionally opposed these programs, pointing out that as currently configured, they leave workers at the mercy of employers and drive down standards. In a nod to this concern, the Senate’s framework at least recognizes the need for strong labor protections within any future program. “Guest workers must have the right to organize,” says Saket Soni of the National Guestworker Alliance. “The path to citizenship shouldn’t come in exchange for a temporary worker program that is exploitable.” No reform proposal on the table in Washington, however, addresses the root causes of migration—including the poverty that US trade policies have helped to create just over our border, propelling workers to cross it (see Gary Younge’s column on page 10 of this issue).
Some observers are both skeptical and wary, pointing to a track record of failure and the tendency, during previous debates over comprehensive immigration reform, for the legislation to tilt to the right as deliberations wore on. These are reasonable points, but there’s a chance things might be different this time: the GOP base still holds sway over the party, especially in the House, but Republican strategists are painfully aware that they must attract Latinos into their tent, which means they have a lot of ground to cover and not much time to do it.
Although Democrats are negotiating from a position of strength, past experience has shown that this doesn’t mean they will use it. A few small details inserted behind closed doors can quickly turn a good immigration proposal bad. And indeed, any legislation that passes will almost inevitably include some punitive elements designed to attract Republican votes. The big question now is what the balance will be: Will the 11 million be offered a path to citizenship that is not paved with broken glass? That’s what immigrant advocates in Washington are asking. And let’s be honest: the answer that emerges from the messy legislative process isn’t entirely, or even substantially, within our control. Nonetheless, all of us in the progressive community—from labor and religious leaders to grassroots organizations and risk-it-all Dreamers—must do what we can to ensure that the path that is set out is one that immigrants can walk down with a measure of comfort and, finally, a sense of hope.
Columnist Gary Younge writes this week that “Immigration Is Not a Domestic Issue.”