Realistically, the likelihood of a comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill passing before the midterm elections is pretty small. News reports indicate that many advocates are pivoting to supporting more targeted immigration measures, such as DREAM Act or AgJobs, both of which have been introduced and have numerous co-sponsors already. Inevitably, these reports talk about backtracking, moving to a piecemeal approach or abandoning CIR. And then there is usually some kind of smug, I-told-you-so comment from an immigration restrictionist—one that revels in the supposed failure of comprehensive immigration reform. But CIR is more than a piece of legislation. It’s a goal—one which requires long-term commitment and a belief in the fundamental goodness of Americans.

As the Immigration Policy Center has consistently pointed out, comprehensive immigration reform is the solution to a problem that is far more pervasive than most Americans (still) realize. Our broken immigration system contributes to our stalled economy, undermines our reputation in the world, costs us billions of dollars in unworkable enforcement only strategies, and chips away at the moral values of the country. The problem is so big, in fact, that no one bill will ever fix all the pieces at once. But a systematic overhaul, one that includes legalization for the roughly 11 million people already here, a reduction in immigration backlogs that keep families apart, a flexible and fair system for bringing in new workers, and reasonable enforcement would create a solid base on which to build an immigration system that helps the country succeed in the 21st century.

As we have seen on healthcare and climate change, the longer we delay, the bigger and more complex legislation has to become to address the problems we face. Immigration reform is no different. If we had been systematically revising and refining our immigration system over the years, we wouldn’t need CIR now. And when that goal isn’t attainable because of the political climate, people are naturally going to gravitate to more modest provisions. Yes, DREAM and AgJobs won’t solve the whole problem, but the mere fact that people are talking about them as viable short-term options is a victory of sorts—kind of like advancing the ball down the field. And should those provisions become law, they will provide relief to a lot of hard working people who want to contribute to this country. As a practical matter, they will also serve as a laboratory for implementation of a bigger program.

Ironically, the continuing impact of Arizona’s SB 1070 highlights both the urgency of immigration reform and how far we still have to go. Poll after poll shows that the majority of Americans both support the Arizona law and comprehensive immigration reform—support which reflects our long term love-hate relationship with immigration. Unfortunately, as a nation, we can’t seem to deal with issues that we both love and hate until a crisis reaches the boiling point. Thus, the continuing devastation in the Gulf focuses our attention on energy and climate change—it’s hard to miss the daily pictures of birds smothered in oil.

The immigration crisis has reached a boiling point, but its effects are often quiet and behind the scenes. The political calendar probably means that Congress won’t have the will to take up the issue before the elections, but depending on what message the voters send, they may finally have to address comprehensive reform in either a lame duck session or at the beginning of the 112th Congress. Eventually, the goal of CIR and the mechanics of it—legislation—will meet. Until then, people will push for what they can, where and when they can.

Photo by jvoves.