A Note on Comprehensive Immigration Reform
posted by Kevin Johnson
For several years, “comprehensive” immigration reform has been discussed in the U.S. Congress and among the general public. Supporters contend that enforcement-only measures — such as extending the border fence, increasing the number of Immigration & Customs Enforcement officers, efforts to increase deportations, etc. — will not address the true causes of immigration, especially the thirst of the American economy for relatively inexpensive labor. Although “comprehensive” immigration reform has meant many things to many people, reform proposals often include a regularization program for certain group of undocumented immigrants (i.e., the dreaded “amnesty”), some kind of guest worker program supported by agricultural and other employers, and increased immigration enforcement measures. Some proposals also have included increasing the number of visas to eliminate long lines in certain visa categories and increased employment visas.
In the spring of 2006, hundreds of thousands of people — U.S. citizens as well as immigrants — marched in cities across the United States, protesting the tough-on-immigrants Sensenbrenner bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December 2005. Two U.S. Senators, including now-President Barack Obama, participated in the marches.
President Obama long has supported comprehensive immigration reform. Supporters of reform were buoyed by his election, feeling that comprehensive immigration reform just might finally be on the horizon. Well, it just may — or may not — be.
Immigration reform is politically difficult in the best of times — and these most definitely are not the best of times economically in the United States. Although some members of Congress — Congressman Luis Gutíerrez immediately comes to mind, continue to push for immigration reform, the economy and health care reform now seem to dominate the Congressional legislative agenda.
As the old Brooklyn Dodgers slogan (“Wait until next year!”) went, some members of the Obama administration have argued for restraint and to wait until next year. But, next year is an election year in Congress. Enacting legislation on a contentious issue that touches on volatile issues of race and class, seems unlikely in an election year.
At the same time, the Obama administration seems devoted to pursuing more and more immigration enforcement measures. For discussion of the latest measure, click here. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano does not seem to have found an enforcement measure that she does not like. The political calculus appears to be that, by so doing, the administration will gain the public trust on enforcement and then be in a better position to seek immigration reform that benefits immigrants. This strategy was pursued — very unsuccessfully — by the Bush administration — more and more enforcement. We saw infamous workplace raids in New Bedford, Massachusetts and Postville, Iowa, record levels of deportations year after year, aggressive positions in the courts (while always disputing the court’s jurisdiction), and the like. The Bush administration ended up with more (and more) enforcement and no immigration reform.
This is precisely the risk that the Obama administration runs. As it fashions and implements more and more immigration enforcement measures, it may never be able to push balanced immigration reform through Congress. And delay is dangerous because there is always some reason to put off a national debate on a controversial issue.
Hopefully, the Obama administration knows what it is doing politically on immigration. Latinos, immigrant rights advocates, and employers have been patient for now. But, they all have seen what happens when immigration is put off until the second term of a Presidency. As President Bush acknowledged, such delay was a mistake before — and, many think, a mistake now.