Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Failure of Comprehensive Immigration Reform

(Second in a Border Lines' series on the Movement for Comprhensive Immigration Reform.)

The NGO campaign to pass comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) in the second George W. Bush administration failed miserably. Even with a Democratic majority in both Houses and with the stated support of the president, CIR proponents repeatedly failed to advance liberal immigration reform in 2005-2007. 

In contrast, those advancing a restrictionist reform agenda experienced numerous victories in Congress in the form of increased budget allocations for immigration enforcement and authorizations for new border security, employee verification, and immigrant detention measures. 

A massive response by the restrictionist forces in May-June 2007 far surpassed the grassroots organizing and advocacy efforts of the pro-immigration groups, and CIR supporters in the U.S. Senate failed to move the CIR bill forward to a vote. Numerous factors contributed to the failure of CIR. (For a discussion of CIR, see Contradictions of Comprehensive Immigration Reform.) 

While President Bush supported CIR, he made little effort to corral Republican support, while at the same time he increasingly unleashed the Department of Homeland Security to pursue its immigrant crackdown campaign. 

A larger problem, though, was the diminishing bipartisan support for liberal immigration policies. An immigration backlash movement started building in the mid-1990s, and after Sept. 11 the restrictionist movement accumulated new supporters with the merging of national security, border security, and homeland security policies. 

The expanding constituency of grassroots restrictionists persuaded the Republican Party to abandon its traditional pro-business position with respect to immigration and to embrace restrictionism. Awareness of the growth of restrictionist sentiment also moved the Democratic Party from the left to the center on immigration policy, and many moderate and conservative Democrats increasingly espoused positions promoted by the restrictionist policy institutes in Washington. 

 Both parties have in the past several years found common ground in supporting tougher border control and in targeting immigrants as lawbreakers. And both parties are split between business supporters of guestworker and temporary workers programs and opponents (from immigration restrictionists to worker advocates) of these programs that primarily serve business demands for skilled and unskilled foreign labor. 

Included in the CIR proposals, the guestworker provisions roiled the ranks of the Democratic Party. The common wisdom has been that any CIR bill needs to satisfy business demands for temporary workers if it is to count on business support. 

But business support for CIR has been more rhetorical that real – not pulling its share in terms of educational, advocacy, and lobbying work. 

The failure of business to pull its weight at part of the traditional coalition – business, labor, immigrant rights groups, churches (mainline Protestant and Catholic), and immigration lawyers -- that supports liberal immigration policy has given more weight to those in the coalition that oppose or are highly critical of guestworker programs. 

As a result, some coalition members demanded new labor regulations for guestworker programs, angering business supporters, while the inclusion of guestworker programs caused some former labor backers of CIR to drop their support. 

Another factor in eroding the support for CIR was the addition of punitive conditions for those immigrants hoping to legalize their presence. High fees and touch-back provisions caused some in the immigrant-rights forces to abandon their support. 

But it is commonly accepted that the rapid growth of restrictionist forces that was the major factor in stopping CIR during the Bush administration. 

  Next in Border Lines' CIR Series: Dueling Strategies

1 comment:

Will Coley said...

Thank you for your great analysis, especially of the multiple stakeholders. As an immigrant rights advocate, I think the failure of "CIR" is precisely why we should drop the term. CIR has come to mean legalization plus enforcement, something that many of us think is wrong. Why can't we talk about an immigration "update" or "overhaul" that recognizes the rights of immigrants and the sanctity of families?