President Barack Obama could quickly go a long way toward resolving the immigration policy crisis. But not by taking the path that the leading liberal immigration reformers are pressuring him to follow.
Groups such as the National Immigration Forum, Center for Community Change, America’s Voice, and National Council of La Raza, along with their allies in the Democratic Party are calling for reintroduction this year of a comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). Yet without a thoughtful new framing of the immigration issue, consideration of a new CIR bill would be disastrous.
Another divisive debate over the details of a new immigration policy is not what the U.S. body politic needs right now. Even with an increased Democratic majority, there isn’t the political will or political capital to pass a liberal immigration reform in these frightful economic times. Certainly, the administration can move quickly to end the worst practices of the Bush administration. But a new overall policy needs more time, more thought, and a better political strategy.
Another unwieldy CIR bill, even if it passed, wouldn’t fix the broken immigration system. A major reason why the immigration system is so dysfunctional is that there is no national consensus on the role of immigration in our society and our economy. Before jumping to solve the immigration crisis with a welter of new policies wrapped up in a CIR bill, a common language to consider the immigration issue is necessary.
What’s desperately, urgently needed is the power of words—and this is a power that the new president has in abundance. Before dealing with the controversial specifics of a new immigration policy, Obama needs to weave a new narrative about immigration in 21st century America.
“We come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics,” stated Obama in his inaugural speech.
Over the past several years, as the two sides have sought to elevate their positions, constructive discussion has been strangled by petty recriminations and false promises. But if there is to be an immigration reform that repairs the system and is sustainable, it will be necessary to “set aside childish things” and “worn-out dogmas.”
When the issue of immigration policy—legalization, visa quotas, temporary worker program—again comes before Congress for debate, the Obama administration must do its best to set forth a common sense of purpose. “On this day,” said Obama at his inauguration, “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” If immigration reform is to be successful, it must be in this spirit.
A central reason why the immigration debate thus far has been so contentious, so deeply bitter, is the absence of common terms of discourse. Each side in this debate has set out to frame the issue in terms that reflect its own distorted worldview. The result is a nation that is variously divided and confused. Some say that the immigration crisis is at its heart a national security crisis in which the homeland is threatened by porous borders and millions of illegal immigrants in the heartland. Others say that it is a crisis of supply and demand in the laws of the market clash with unrealistic immigration laws that turn workers into illegals. Some say it is a social and cultural crisis in which stability and identity in America are undermined by a pervasive presence of illegal immigrants, while others say that it is a crisis in which there is a massive violation of immigrant rights—the right to work without exploitation and the right to be treated fairly.
Adding to the confusion about the immigration issue is that opposing sides employ some of the same conceptual frameworks to mean different things. Both pro-immigration and anti-immigration institutes in Washington, DC now sprinkle their messaging with appeals to the “rule of law” and “worker rights.”
For pro-immigration institutes pushing CIR, the only way to restore the rule of law is to bring illegal immigrants “out of the shadows” of the law through a legalization process and to provide more legal paths of entry. In contrast, the anti-immigration groups say that only by enforcing immigration law consistently—both at the border and in the country’s interior—will the rule of law be restored.
Worker rights for the immigrant advocates means enforcement of labor laws to protect immigrants (and by extension all workers), while anti-immigration organizations say that the large presence of illegal workers undermine the rights of legal workers who are forced into a competition that drives wages and working conditions downward.
Each side claims the virtue of common sense. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the nation’s oldest restrictionist institute, boasts in its slogan that it is “Restoring Common Sense to America’s Immigration System.” Meanwhile, the competing slogan of America’s Voice, an immigrant-rights organization created in the wake of CIR’s defeat in 2007, is “The Power to Win Common Sense Immigration Reform.”
Each side tells America that its vision of immigration reform is the fair one. “FAIR” is the acronym of the leading restrictionist organization, and it kicks off the name of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, the networking branch of the immigrant-rights institutes in Washington.
As it became evident in the CIR congressional battles in 2006 and 2007, comprehensive immigration reform, even if passed, would fall far short of establishing a new immigration policy that is both sensible and fair. While attempting to be comprehensive—border security, temporary workers, family visas, employment verification, immigration law enforcement, citizenship conditions, etc.—the last CIR bill of the Bush administration came to the Senate floor as a patchwork of compromises and contradictions.
No doubt there is an immigration crisis in America. No doubt that the system is broken, as contending sides both assert. Attempts to solve the crisis have been costly and reckless. The budget being thrown by both Democrats and Republicans at border control and immigration law enforcement increases every year by more than a billion dollars. Thousands of newly hired and inadequately trained border patrol officers in an armada of new vehicles roam the borderland, which is booming with construction of border walls, fortified ports of entry, and imposing new headquarters for an occupying arm of Homeland Security agents.
Private prison firms and local governments rush to build dozens of new prisons for immigrants stopped at the border or rounded up in the interior. Most major and medium-size cities now host Homeland Security “fugitive operations teams” that in their hunt for criminal and fugitive (who have not responded to immigration court orders) immigrants are banging down doors in dawn raids and collecting as collateral non-targeted immigrants, legal residents, and immigrant-looking citizens. It’s shameful.
In the name of restoring the rule of law, immigrants are being pulled from their families, communities, and employment and then outsourced to private prison companies that own and operate the country’s new array of immigrant prisons. Immigrant settlements that have revitalized urban centers and dying rural towns are being shorn apart. But in the absence of a national consensus about immigration, the government says it has no recourse but to enforce the law.
As part of the message of change and new beginnings, President Obama could help forge this consensus with new words about immigration. Just as he is bringing rivals and parties together and just as he is bridging other ideological divides with a vision of common hope for a renewed America, he and all those committed to solving the immigration crisis must aim for a new common language about immigration.
With his inaugural speech and his evident commitment to inclusiveness and nonpartisan politics, Obama is a natural for the task—namely, creating a new framework for understanding immigration and for managing it in the national interest. What he needs to explain, as perhaps only he can, is that the nation needs a healthy debate over immigration. But not a debate shaped and driven by pro- and anti-immigration groups that are irretrievably entrenched in their own rhetoric and convictions. Rather a debate and a discourse that is positive, inclusive, and pragmatic.
The terms used to frame the new national discussion about immigration can be common ones—like justice, community, sustainability, rights, national interest, and yes, common sense and fairness. But Obama has the capability to infuse the talk of values and interests in the immigration debate with a new vitality, a new urgency, and an invigorating personal relevancy. The challenge now is to create a new narrative to immigration that brings Americans together. With his power of words and ability to evoke hope, he could provide the impetus so badly needed to help us determine together how and how many immigrants contribute to our national interest and our nation’s future.