(Border Lines CIR Series #16)
President Barack Obama could quickly go a long way toward resolving the immigration policy crisis. But it’s not the path that the leading liberal immigration reformers are demanding. At this time the introduction of new comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill would, even if supported by the president, would be disastrous.
Many of the forces that supported CIR last time around are calling for the Obama administration to support liberal immigration reform within its first year. They say it’s what the voters want and what’s needed to solve the immigration crisis.
But another divisive debate over the details of a new immigration policy is not what the U.S. public needs, and it’s not what immigrants need. Even with an increased Democratic majority, there isn’t the political will or political capital to pass a liberal immigration reform.
What’s needed is not another unwieldy CIR bill. What’s desperately, urgently needed is simply the power of words – and this is a power that the 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 America.
A central reason why the immigration debate is 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 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 the pro-immigration forces, 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 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. It’s 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 was 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 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.
It’s out of control.
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 nontargeted immigrants, legal residents and immigrant-looking citizens.
In the name of restoring the rule of law, immigrants are being pulled from their families, communities, and employment and the 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.
It’s up to President Obama to forge that consensus with new words about immigration. Just as he is bringing rivals and parties together and just as bridging other ideological divides with a vision of common hope for a renewed America, he needs to create a new common language about immigration.
The immigration debate that is raging in America is suffused with many valid terms: immigrant-rights, nation of immigrants, justice for all, nation’s right to control its border, identity theft, overburdened social services, etc.
Cobbling all these terms and associated policies together into a comprehensive immigration bill is one approach to solving the immigration crisis. But in a post-Bush America it’s old approach that doesn’t rise to this new hopeful political time.
No one else has risen to the challenge, but Obama is a natural for the task of creating a new framework for understanding immigration and 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 narrow 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 can infuse them with a new vitality, a new urgency, and an invigorating personal relevancy.
It’s his challenge now to create a new narrative to immigration that brings Americans together. With his power of words and ability to evoke hope, he needs to help us determine together how and how many immigrants contribute to our national interest and our nation’s future.
Next in Border Lines CIR Series: Latino Path to Immigration Reform