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.