The Coming Fight On Immigration Reform: What Progressives Want

If you've been frustrated by the profound meaninglessness of the just-finished Beltway battle over the fiscal bluff, and its followup fake debt-ceiling "crisis" this March, take heart: The next really big fight shaping up this spring and summer

If you've been frustrated by the profound meaninglessness of the just-finished Beltway battle over the fiscal bluff, and its followup fake debt-ceiling "crisis" this March, take heart: The next really big fight shaping up this spring and summer will at least be over something genuinely consequential -- comprehensive immigration reform.

An Obama administration official said the president plans to push for immigration reform this January. The official, who spoke about legislative plans only on condition of anonymity, said that coming standoffs over deficit reduction are unlikely to drain momentum from other priorities. The White House plans to push forward quickly, not just on immigration reform but gun control laws as well.

... It remains unclear what type of immigration policies the White House plans to push in January, but turning them into law could be a long process. Aides expect it will take about two months to write a bipartisan bill, then another few months before it goes up for a vote, possibly in June. A bipartisan group of senators are already working on a deal, although they are still in the early stages. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) will likely lead on the Democratic side in the House. While many Republicans have expressed interest in piecemeal reform, it's still unclear which of them plan to join the push.

Lofgren expressed hope that immigration reform would be able to get past partisan gridlock, arguing that the election was seen as something of a mandate for fixing the immigration system and Republicans won't be able to forget their post-election promises to work on a bill. "In the end, immigration reform is going to depend very much on whether Speaker [John] Boehner wants to do it or not," Lofgren said.

Indeed. No doubt any bill that has a chance of passing the House will be larded with all kinds of punitive, enforcement-heavy measures, emphasizing "border security" even beyond the extreme measures that have been instituted in the past decade, that will be insisted upon by conservatives of all stripes, Republican and Democrat alike.

But Republicans in particular are having to face the hard realities of demographic change in the USA, having just had their hats handed to them by Latino voters in the last election -- due punishment for the party's disgusting embrace of the naked nativist faction that now is embodied in the Tea Party. Boehner and Co. may not want to deal with the issue, but cold reality is almost certainly going to compel them to act in a quasi-reasonable fashion.

As America's Voice observed after the election:

The demographic writing on the wall says that Republicans must be more pro-immigrant and willing to reach out to Latino voters. The 2012 election results have sparked a frenzy of Republican and conservative soul-searching about how they can avoid a repeat of the 2012 election cycle for future national elections. One of the most universal acknowledgements is that the Republican Party must do better among the rapidly-growing Latino voter population and, concurrently, that the Party must change its dominant, hardline immigration stance. As Republican strategist Ana Navarro tweeted, “Mitt Romney self-deported himself from the White House.”

Twenty percent of Latinos would be willing to vote Republican if the GOP had more tolerant positions on immigration. That extra 20% would put Republicans in reach of regaining the White House. One-in-five Latinos voted for President Obama in 2012 but said that they would be open to voting for Republicans if the Party leads on immigration. Combining this subset of Obama voters with the 23% of Latinos who voted for Mitt Romney, a pro-immigration reform Republican Party would be poised to again achieve the 40% threshold of Latino support that George W. Bush received in 2004 and many analysts say the GOP will need going forward to remain a nationally competitive party, especially as demographic trends accelerate for the 2014 and 2016 elections.

The GOP’s demographic problems will only get worse from here. Noting the long-term implications of the Republican Party’s “Latino problem,” former Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) noted that the 2012 elections were, “a clarion call that we have to [respond to]. Soon we are going to have to start worrying about Texas and Arizona. Unless we step up, we are going to be the minority party.” Similarly, newly-elected Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) told Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker, “If Texas is bright blue, you can’t get to two-seventy electoral votes. The Republican Party would cease to exist. We would become like the Whig Party.”

Progressive Democrats will be entering this debate from a position of strength, especially given the American public's eagerness to resolve the immigration mess. Yes, Republicans will make the most noise and will pout and make faces, but progressives have the upper hand, and should act accordingly.

So what should progressive Democrats expect in any immigration-reform legislation? Obviously, at some point things will be diluted in the process of negotiation. But instead of taking the standard Obama approach to negotiations -- which has been to dilute everything down by negotiating with our own side first, then making that the starting point in negotiations with Republicans -- it's time to take an aggressively progressive approach and insist first on progressive legislation, which is to say, lawmaking that will actually work to solve the problem.

What does a progressive agenda on immigration look like? Something like this:

  • An earned path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants currently in the country who wish to remain -- and a guest-worker program for those who just want to work and return home.
  • Modest, appropriate penalties for those currently here illegally, plus requirements to study English, pay taxes, and otherwise get right with the law.
  • Make obtaining citizenship a rational process, free of unnecessary red tape and bureaucratic hurdles.
  • Create a guest-worker program that ensures participants’ full constitutional rights, including the right to organize, while enabling the distribution of labor, both skilled and unskilled, to those industries where it is needed.
  • Discard the current system's longstanding phobia regarding "chain migration", instead emphasizing the value of family ties when considering admission and work visas.
  • Undertake a complete overhaul of immigration-quota system, so that immigrants are admitted on the basis of economic needs and are not based on nations of origin.

Making a progressive argument for this agenda really is a matter of common sense -- though often, the messaging on immigration has often focused on advancing ethnic rights and fairly narrow interests, when the larger arguments that reach across many different interests and backgrounds and appeals are what we need to be discussing.

It is, for instance, easy to dismiss the fact that what many ordinary people – many of whom are otherwise sympathetic to immigrants -- really don’t like about the immigration mess is that laws are being broken, and with such apparent disregard. It’s why the meme that reduces immigrants to the dehumanizing term "illegals" resonates so widely. It's why they so often say, “We should just enforce the laws on the books.”

Of course, we used to hear people say that about the "war on drugs" all the time. Hardly anyone makes that argument anymore, though, because it's been proven an abject and expensive failure.

And it has failed for exactly the same reason the our immigration laws have failed: The "laws on the books" simply don't work -- and they don't work because they criminalize a whole lot of otherwise law-abiding, decent, hard-working people.

I'm not just talking about the immigrants themselves, though that certainly describes them. But I'm also talking about the other people who are criminalized in the process as well: Farmers and orchardists who need immigrant labor to survive economically, landscape and construction operations that need the unskilled labor to function, and anyone else who dares to employ an "illegal immigrant." When you see decent people being criminalized for simply trying to make a decent living by working hard, that's when you know that the laws themselves are the problem.

Once you open that conversation, the rest is logical: It makes no more sense to deport (or “self-deport”) all 12 million undocumented than to retroactively fine and imprison every farmer, stockyard owner and landscaping businessman for having hired them in the first place. What's clear and similarly logical is that what's needed is a comprehensive overhaul of the laws that squares everyone with the law, and gets all aspiring immigrants into a rational system of legal immigration instead of the bollixed-up bureaucratic tangle that exists now.

Frank Sharry and his staff at America's Voice offered these thoughts on what we ought to be looking for in any immigration package:

  • Direct, clear, fair, and inclusive path to citizenship for immigrants in the U.S. without papers. No complicated processes like a requirement to return to their home countries for paperwork (touch-back); no unfair exclusions (e.g. people who have outstanding removal orders, people who worked in day labor and have harder time proving sustained employment, elderly people, people with HIV/AIDS, etc.)
  • Legal channels that are flexible and functional for future immigration—and robust protections for all workers. Both the family and employment-based immigrant visa programs need an overhaul. There should be a way for individuals to come and work legally in lesser-skilled or trade jobs, which doesn’t exist today. Immigrant workers need full labor rights and access to citizenship. If we increase visas for high-skilled workers, it can’t be done at the expense of other visa categories and there must be strong labor protections for American workers. Family-based immigration should also be adjusted to reflect today’s realities. Family is supposed to be the cornerstone of our nation’s immigration laws, so the system needs to reflect that. In addition, the law should prioritize and resource labor law enforcement to empower workers and punish employers who abuse and exploit them.
  • Enforcement should be fair, not ferocious. Great damage was done to the legal rights of immigrants through prior immigration laws (like the laws passed by Republicans in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton), and through administrative fiat (287(g), S-Comm, record levels of deportations, aggressive prosecutions of illegal re-entry, etc). Even long-term legal immigrants have lost basic due process rights, and undocumented immigrants who could once obtain immigration status under the law are now barred. We spend more federal tax dollars today on immigration enforcement than on the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives combined. This has created a state of siege in many communities that are inundated with Border Patrol agents, or targeted regularly by ICE. And, it hasn’t fixed anything. The new law should NOT pile on to the damage done by 1996 with additional restrictions on immigrants’ rights. It SHOULD begin the process of restoring fairness and balance to our nation’s immigration laws and enforcement.

It's also clear that there needs to be a system in place for employing short-term unskilled labor wherein the workers can easily return to their homes after seasonal employment ends. As the folks at SEIU note, immigration reform needs to address the future flow of immigrants:

Replace the current undocumented flow of workers with a 21st Century system that allows new American immigrant workers and family members to come to the U.S. in a safe, legal and orderly manner. Any new worker visa program must provide for strict compliance with U.S. labor standards and wage and hour standards; portability of visas so that workers can change jobs; and the ability for workers to petition for permanent residency.

One of the most thorough examinations of the problem can be found at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which has as well-designed a blueprint for legislation as you'll find. As their paper on the subject observes:

Most unauthorized workers are law-abiding, hardworking individuals who pay their taxes and contribute to our society and as such they are essential to many sectors of our economy. By requiring these people to come out of the shadows, register with the government, pay an appropriate fine, go through security checks, and earn the privilege of permanent legal status, we can restore the rule of law in our workplaces and communities, and maximize the contributions this population can make to our country.

They too recommend a seasonal visa system for guest workers:

In the current regime, there is no non-immigrant visa category authorizing essential workers in low- or semi-skilled occupations to work in the U.S., except on a seasonal basis. In order to regulate and control the future flow of essential workers, a new program should be created to provide visas, full labor rights, job portability, and a path to permanent residence over time for those who would not displace U.S. workers. It would thereby significantly diminish illegal immigration by creating a legal avenue for people to enter the U.S. and return, as many wish, to their countries, communities, and families.

Moreover, as they note, any reform must revolve around the principles of permanent immigration:

Restoring family values to the family-based program requires eliminating the family-based visa backlogs, reforming the family preference system and providing adequate numbers of visas to support family reunification. Likewise, alleviating the employment-based backlogs and providing appropriate numbers of employment-based visas will ensure the continued growth and vitality of our economy. U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are often required to wait 7–10 years (and sometimes up to 20 years) to reunite with their close family members.

Such long separations make no sense in our pro-family nation and undermine one of the central goals of our immigration system: family unity. Backlogs for employment-based immigrant visas have also increased dramatically for workers with certain high-demand skill sets from certain countries. These backlogs make it difficult for employers to attract and retain the best and brightest talent from around the world, thus undermining our competitiveness in the global economy. Any workable comprehensive immigration reform proposal must eliminate our family-based and employment-based immigrant visa backlogs and improve our preference systems to adjust to 21st century realities.

And while the right, no doubt, will dream up all kinds of expensive and probably unnecessary "border security" measures, these should be held in check as much as possible. Instead, we need (as the AILA notes) "smart enforcement that includes effective inspections and screening practices, fair proceedings, efficient processing, and strategies that crack down on criminal smugglers and lawbreaking employers."

As immigration attorney Bo Cooper observes:

It’s difficult to see a broad immigration reform bill, particularly assuming that it includes legalization, not including additional enforcement measures. Congress will not, and should not, consider a robust legalization policy without some level of assurance that the problem will not just repeat itself. On the other hand, many of the enforcement measures that were raised by some as preconditions of broader reform in the last debates in 2007 have largely been met in the years since. There will be a strong effort this time around to make sure that additional enforcement measures are properly targeted. One area that employers should be attentive to is employment verification. Those rules are virtually certain to change if immigration reform moves ahead.

Our archaic, xenopohobia-driven immigration system has crumbled under the weight of the nativist insistence on "enforcing the laws on the books," and even right-wing organizations like the Cato Institute are able to recognize that it's been not just a social disaster but an economic wreck as well. Or you could just ask the folks in Arizona and Alabama, the states that have most ardently adopted the nativist agenda, how it's worked out for them economically. Answer: Not very well at all.

The same is true for the nation as a whole. It's past time it got fixed.

About David Neiwert

Comments

We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.