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Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano shows few signs of reining in the immigrant crackdown launched by her predecessor Michael Chertoff. She recently called for "more boots on the ground" along the border and touted her determination to promote the "rule of law" in immigration enforcement.
The "rule of law" framing of immigration policy copies the language of the Bush administration and the agenda of the immigration restrictionists. The apparent continuity between the enforcement agenda of Chertoff and Napolitano alarms advocates of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR).
But Napolitano’s tough talk on immigration enforcement reflects key components of the new messaging of the leading CIR advocates in Washington. As the immigration debate has shifted to the right, liberal groups like the National Immigration Forum, America’s Voice, Center for American Progress, NDN, and National Council of La Raza have also been calling for an immigration reform that "secures the border" and "restores the rule of law."
As a strategy to build center-right support for comprehensive immigration reform, including legalization, the Washington, DC-based liberal immigration lobby has advocated that the Democratic Party and all immigrant-rights advocates adopt a "rule of law" framework that includes more border security and employment verification while placing the onus on immigrants themselves to "get right with the law."
The concept behind this strategic maneuvering is that Americans will support a legalization provision for illegal immigrants if the proposal is couched in tough "rule of law" language. In other words, by moving to the right immigration advocates would be better positioned to advance a liberal immigration reform.
Thus far, however, this pro-immigration strategy of talking tough to advance CIR has fallen flat. The Bush administration used the "rule of law" position on immigration to rationalize the immigrant crackdown. The Obama administration to date has shown few signs of backing away from the Bush administration’s enforcement-first regimen. The "rule of law" logic of border control and immigration enforcement continues to dominate the immigration debate in America.
In a Feb. 16 interview with NPR, Napolitano signaled her intention to embrace that agenda. "First of all, the rule of law applies on the border, and we want to make sure that that happens, No. 1. That means manpower. That means technology—things like ground sensors. It means interior enforcement against those who intentionally are going into the illegal labor market and creating a demand for illegal laborers, so that’s all going to continue. How we do that may change with me as a new secretary, but we want to make sure the rule of law is applied, and it’s applied fairly and forcefully across the border."
Like Chertoff, who frequently explained the Bush administration’s "enforcement-first" regime as an effort to "restore integrity" to immigration law and border control and thereby create a foundation for immigration reform, Napolitano sees enforcement and border control as laying the groundwork for immigration reform.
In her Jan. 30 departmental directive, Napolitano stated: "Smart, resolute enforcement by the department can keep Americans safe, foster legal immigration to America, protect legitimate commerce, and lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive reform."
Napolitano has repeatedly, both as Arizona governor and DHS secretary, declared her support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But at the same time she has also articulated her strong commitment to enforce immigration law—as dysfunctional as it might be. And to secure the border—no matter its multi-billion dollar cost and unproven effectiveness in protecting the homeland.
With respect to border security, she has adopted militaristic terminology and a posture that dials up the enforcement-first rhetoric of her predecessor. "You’ve got to have boots on the ground," says Napolitano. "You’ve got to have technology. You’ve got to have interior enforcement of our workplace laws. Some fencing in some places may make sense, but only if it’s part of an overall system." That system has little to do with protecting the nation from terrorists, the central mission of her department, and is all about cracking down on illegal immigrants.
Napolitano places herself on firm political ground in continuing the enforcement-first immigration agenda of the Bush administration. She can point to language in the Democratic Party platform and the policy statements of the Washington, DC immigrant-rights groups.
Leading up to the adoption of the party’s platform, a coalition of immigrant-rights, ethnic, and policy groups came together around a strategy intended to co-opt the law-and-order rhetoric of immigration restrictionists. With great success, they advocated that the Democratic Party and all CIR proponents rally around a "get right with the law" framework for immigration reform.
The two groups central to this strategy were the Center for American Progress (CAP) and America’s Voice. In typical DC fashion, they commissioned a poll to demonstrate the political viability and wisdom of a new "rule of law" messaging for comprehensive immigration reform.
In its report, "Winning the Immigration Issue: Requiring Legal Status for Illegal Immigrants," the Democratic Party polling firm came back with the conclusion that CAP and America’s Voice sought. Headed by Stan Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the pollsters r ecommended that Democrats and CIR supporters mobilize around the law-and-order message.
" We must be tough and smart to get our immigration system under control. It is unacceptable to have 12 million people in our country living outside the legal system. We must secure the border but we must also require illegal immigrants to register and become legal, pay their taxes, learn English, and pass criminal background checks. Those who have a criminal record or refuse to register should be sent home."
CAP then sent out a memo, titled "Groundbreaking Messaging on Immigration Reform," to Democratic congressional staffers explaining that the new rule of law positioning on immigration would protect the party against right-wing attacks. "As you know," wrote CAP’s Winnie Stachelberg, "getting the language right on the issue of immigration is important in both helping Democratic members against attacks and laying the groundwork for future reform."
The same day that the polling report was released a coalition of DC groups then sent a letter to the Democratic and Republican Party platform committees advocating the inclusion of this new messaging in the immigration platform of the two parties. While the letter attacked Bush administration immigration policies, it did mark a new consensus around a rule-of-law messaging that had been until then used mainly by restrictionists and the right-wing.
The Democratic Party platform also marked a sharp departure from the usual "pathway to citizenship" message of the party and its immigration reform forces. As if providing a policy mandate to the next DHS chief, the platform stated: "We need to secure our borders, and support additional personnel, infrastructure, and technology on the border and at our ports of entry."
With respect to the "pathway to citizenship" that the party had previously supported, the platform propagated the language advanced by the Center for American Progress, America’s Voice, and others in the CIR coalition, stating: "W e must require them to come out of the shadows and get right with the law."
The "rule of law" and "get right with the law" now reverberates among the circle of Washington organizations that are leading the charge for a new CIR bill in the Obama administration. As if to declare their law-and-order credentials, the National Immigration Forum, America’s Voice, Center for Community Change, NDN, and others routinely insert rule of law language in all their communications.
In an article shortly after Obama’s inauguration, Ali Noorani, director of the National Immigration Forum, observed that Obama realized that " reforming our immigration system includes encouraging undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows and get into the system and right with the law."
Napolitano’s avid commitment to secure the border, uphold immigration law, and generally promote the "rule of law" in her position as Homeland Security chief is an echo of the very language that immigration reform advocates use in their own statements. In its agenda for immigration policy, America’s Voice stipulates "Smart and Professional Law Enforcement" as a central policy guideline, and calls for a policy that " restores the rule of law both to our borders and our workplaces."
"Restore the Rule of Law and Enhance Security" was one of the six principles of the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, the now-defunct coalition led by the National Immigration Reform, National Council of La Raza, and Center for Community Change.
In their new strategy for liberal immigration reform, these immigrant-rights advocates haven’t been entirely clear about their priorities. While advancing the tough "rule of law" enforcement and "get right with the law" language, they haven’t explicitly rejected the "enforcement-first" approach.
Rather than forthrightly saying that it is impossible to restore the "rule of law" or promote "smart law enforcement" when the laws are inadequate and unjust, they have incorporated the law-and-order language to widen their political reach.
With the hope of winning center-right support for liberal immigration reform, America’s Voice, Center for American Progress, and others have retooled their own messaging. But in the process they have lent moral support to the law-and-order regimen while burying their message.
What is more, rare was the voice among the immigration reform advocates in DC, who are closely tied to the Democratic Party, that raised alarm about candidate Obama’s own strong support for border security, employment verification, and enforcement of existing immigration law.
Nor did they outline a logic for immigration reform that was more holistic than the simplistic rule of law framework they embraced as a central argument for comprehensive immigration reform. They presented no vision of a future immigration policy that would ensure that immigration flows are sustainable socially and economically.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the Democratic Party leadership, like the Republicans, have interpreted the apparent political consensus around a "rule of law" immigration and border policy as a political mandate to continue along the "enforcement first" path set by the Bush administration. Napolitano is doing just that, and it may be time for liberal immigration reform advocates to revisit their opportunistic "rule of law" messaging and center-right framing of the immigration crisis.