Immigrant Friends and Foes Debate the Definition of “Comprehensive Immigration Reform”

Nearly everyone agrees that an immigration reform bill of some sort will be introduced in Congress in the near future given the pivotal role that Latinos and immigrants played in getting President Obama reelected. But no one knows yet just how “comprehensive” that bill will be, meaning which groups of immigrants will be included and which will be excluded. For immigrant-rights advocates, a truly comprehensive bill would create a pathway to legal status for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants now living in the country. For anti-immigrant activists, the definition of “comprehensive” is, not surprisingly, a bit less comprehensive. In fact, their redefinition of the concept is often so tortured as to be meaningless.

This is apparent in the “Room for Debate” section of the December 10 New York Times. In brief op-eds, six public figures of varying magnitude and political persuasion opined about the meaning of “comprehensive immigration reform.” The comparisons are enlightening:

  • Gary Segura, professor of political science at Stanford University and co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions, cast the widest possible net of inclusion and equality in defining comprehensive reform. He said that immigration reform must include a pathway not only to legal status for unauthorized immigrants, but to full U.S. citizenship as well. Anything less “will create a permanent underclass of residents, vulnerable to exploitation, alienated from our institutions, and with little permanent stake in our society.” He also noted that excessive penalties or “touch back” provisions would sabotage the reform effort, and that DREAMers should not be subject to any penalty since they have committed no offense. And he called for the inclusion of gay and lesbian families in immigration reform.
  • Similarly, Bruce Morrison, former U.S. Representative from Connecticut, chairman of the House immigration subcommittee, and author of the Immigration Act of 1990, warned against piecemeal reforms or yet another enforcement-only effort to drive unauthorized immigrants out of the country.  He called for a legalization program coupled with an electronic employment-verification system, plus more generous legal limits on future immigration, in order to stem future unauthorized flows.
  • Likewise, Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, mocked the irrationality of the piecemeal approach to immigration reform. He compared that effort to having a car that won’t run because it’s suffering from no gas, a dead battery, a flat tire, and a lost key—and you try to make it run again by fixing only two of the problems. As he notes: “Because the parts of immigration policy are so connected, we need to try our best to fix them comprehensively. Treat everyone with respect. Secure our borders. Authorize guest workers. Keep families together. Provide a path to legal status or citizenship for those in the U.S. illegally.”
  • Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-director of the Caring Across Generations Campaign, emphasized the plight of immigrant families that are ripped apart by deportation, with U.S.-citizen children in the United States separated from unauthorized parents removed to other countries. She also pointed to the large number of domestic workers who are unauthorized, and the ironic fact that the households of many anti-immigrant zealots are dependent upon the labor of unauthorized nannies and housekeepers. As she writes, “the proponents of anti-immigrant state legislation in Texas created an exception for domestic workers for fear of losing their caregivers and housekeepers to deportation.” She viewed a pathway to citizenship for the unauthorized as the only compassionate and sustainable option.
  • In marked contrast, James Carafano, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, opted for a rather unique brand of piecemeal (and heartless) immigration reform. This was apparent from the title of his essay: “Deal Later With Those Here Illegally.” In other words, keep kicking the can further down the road. Carafono’s rationale for this approach was that, since the big, complicated, special-interest-laden 1986 legalization did not put a stop to unauthorized immigration, we shouldn’t try for a better comprehensive approach this time around. His rather nonsensical alternative is to first tackle things like “the poor state of public safety, lack of economic freedom and stagnant civil society in Mexico; border security; lack of adequate temporary worker programs; and inadequate workplace enforcement in the United States”—then deal with different subgroups of the unauthorized population in different ways, ranging “from deferred removal, to sponsorship, to depart and return, to a path to citizenship.” This sounds like far more of a mess than the 1986 legalization ever was.
  • Finally, Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, offered a meandering defense of immigration enforcement in general and a system of electronic employment verification in particular. He mentioned high unemployment and job competition and immigrant families on “welfare,” but never actually said what he thought the solution was to having 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States. Presumably, all of the enforcement measures he favors would persuade unauthorized immigrants to engage in a Romney-style “self-deportation.”

Groups that favor truly comprehensive immigration reform are in the ascendancy right now, and the anti-immigrant activists know it. So they are left trying to walk a very fine line, offering tiny scraps of charity to the DREAMers or high-tech workers, while preserving enforcement-only policies that target the larger unauthorized population. In other words, they are talking out of both sides of their mouths, and the result is often gibberish.

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  1. Doubts about the CIR platform are not limited to anti-immigrant activists and legislators. A piecemeal approach could have some advantages over CIR. It is impossible to say with certainty, but had a piecemeal approach been adopted by advocates in 2009-2010 when the conventional wisdom was that the DREAM Act could pass on its own, we might be 2-3 years into a DREAM Act by now. I haven’t seen much to convince me that CIR has a better chance of getting through the GOP-controlled House now than in 2009-10 when the Dems held the House with a sizable majority. CIR as it’s currently framed will likely exclude millions of undocumented people from legalization, including people with criminal records, who can’t learn English, who can’t afford steep filing fees, or who have already been entangled in the immigration system or previously deported.

    People on both sides of the debate are promoting the fantasy that unauthorized migration can be resolved once and for all with a CIR bill. Marshall Fitz said as much this week in an article for CAP. But CIR won’t get rid of all the laws that make people deportable for criminal convictions, won’t help non-English speaking adults naturalize, won’t change the prosecutorial culture at all the federal immigration agencies, won’t reduce the wait times for family preference categories, won’t change the EWI, unlawful presence, and reentry bars, won’t demilitarize the border, and won’t eliminate mandatory detention or prison abuses. I think a piecemeal approach might have a better chance than CIR of resolving long-standing features of the immigration system that push people into undocumented status.

    Regardless, I will support whatever combination of legislation will be the best for the greatest number of people. It’s not clear to me that CIR will legalize more people than a strategic piecemeal approach, especially if CIR never passes. Framing the issue as “CIR-good, piecemeal-bad” didn’t work in 2010 and is not particularly productive now, either.

  2. JL Ghertner says:

    Everyone speaks of legalization of the 11 million undocumented immigrants through some undefined as yet process of CIR. but Noone addresses the criminalization of a huge proportion of mostly farmworkers caught in the CBP dragnet around our farms and small communities.

    In our small community in Western NY, dependent on seasonal labor for a majority of its economic vitality, it is a rare family who has not been touched by the criminalization of a loved one for the crime of of such stupid deeds as driving to Walmart.

    If something is not done to reverse this stigmatization and criminalization, CIR will be just another empty promise. A New Jim Crow exists in the migrant community and is not discussed.

  3. For me it should focus on the iclusión of wishing to be included. I’m talking about people who not only come to America to look for money and opportunities but to grow and generate jobs, contribute and be a genuine citizen.

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