May 4th 2010

Question: Will Politics Trump Needed Reform?

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

This week, the Senate's Democratic leadership advanced a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform that contains provisions long supported by Republicans. The framework calls for:

* Enhancing and strengthening border security;

* Tough sanctions on employers who violate immigration laws;

* A bio-metric national ID card;

* Pegging new immigration quotas to economic needs (with allowance for family reunification); and

* Providing a "tough but fair" path to citizenship for the 11 million "undocumenteds" currently in the U.S.

In the past major U.S. businesses and many Republicans have supported similar provisions and, therefore, one might assume that this compromise framework would win GOP support speeding the way to much needed comprehensive immigration reform. But, in the current political environment, the prospects for such rational discourse and compromise appear slim.

In fact, much of this announced framework was the result of a bipartisan effort led by Democratic Senator Charles Schumer (NY) and Republican Senator Lindsay Graham (SC). They have been working on a compromise approach hoping to draw at least one other Republican into the effort, before formally introducing legislation. What prompted the Democratic leadership to act was the signing into law of a bill in Arizona that allows state and local law enforcement officials use the dangerously loose standard of "reasonable suspicion" to stop individuals and require them to show proof of legal status in the country.

Democrats roundly criticized the new law (both on the basis of its opening the door to racial profiling and its unconstitutional usurpation by state and local governments of a matter that is the prerogative of the federal government). Republicans were divided, with some sharing the same concerns as their Democratic colleagues, while others praised the Arizona governor for taking a tough stand to secure her state.

It is interesting to note that although they clearly disagreed on the merits and the legality of the law, both the Arizona Governor and President Obama agreed on one point: that passage of this law resulted from the failure of the federal government to act to solve the problems posed by our nation's porous borders and the presence of millions of undocumented workers in the U.S. It was this challenge to act that prompted the Democratic leadership to announce the framework for reform.

Everyone knows what the problems are and the difficulties involved in addressing them. The immigration system is understaffed, underfunded and broken. While corrective measures have been taken to strengthen border security, in many areas they remain open to illegal crossings. There are millions of undocumented workers already in the U.S.-many of them married with U.S. citizen children. They live in fear of deportation. In some instances, employers have taken advantage of these individuals, exploiting their cheap labor. And even in the case of those who entered legally as visitors or students, and have overstayed, the system has no way to track them and enforce the law.

Everyone also knows what can not be done and should not be considered. It is unacceptable even to imagine the round-up and mass deportation of millions of decent and hardworking individuals and their families. It is also clear what limits there are to the ability of under-resourced immigration services to handle this problem. And some businesses and communities complain that removal of "undocumenteds" will place undo hardships on them. And so, it is clear that a solution must be found that both secures the nation's borders and enhances immigration enforcement, while providing for a humane, smart yet tough remedy to the problem of those "undocumenteds" who are already here.

This, however, is an election year occurring in the context of a deepening partisan divide where finding smart solutions is of secondary concern to some. We saw the same situation play out over efforts to resolve the nation's health care crisis (35 to 40 million uninsured-with numbers growing daily due to increased unemployment, rapid increases in health care costs and insurance premiums, and the tyranny of unreasonable conditions imposed by insurance companies). Here too, politics trumped, with Republicans united in efforts to block legislation that included many of the very proposals they had advanced in the past.

This year, Democrats face political challenges from the nation's growing Latino population (they are currently 13.5% of the U.S.'s population and growing, and tend to vote heavily Democratic) and they are pressing for immediate reform. Some Republicans, on the other hand, are facing a revolt from the nativist far-right which has caused some who previously backed reform to now oppose it. A case in point is Senator John McCain of Arizona. In the past McCain championed the very framework now being proposed. Facing a Republican primary challenge from the right, McCain has now become an opponent of reform.

Since some vulnerable and/or conservative Democrats will also place political considerations ahead of needed reform, should the effort to fix the nation's broken system fail to find a few GOP supporters, it is unlikely that the effort will succeed. As a result of this inaction, the problem will remain, states like Arizona will continue to take the law into their own hands, and immigrants, both legal and illegal will continue to live in fear of profiling by overzealous law enforcement officials.

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