The Rightward Drift of Immigration Reform

Harry Reid's bill makes a bad framework worse. And it still won't move.

By Seth Freed Wessler Apr 30, 2010

April 30, 2010

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, along with fellow Senate Democrats Chuck Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, outlined a new immigration bill yesterday. The plan becomes the lead reform proposal in Congress, supplanting hardline compromise outlined a month ago by Schumer and South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham. But in a desperate attempt to capture fleeing Republican support, the Democrats have moved further still to the right, creating border and interior security benchmarks that must be met before opening pathways to visas.

It’s anybody’s guess how the many moving pieces will come together, or if they will at all. Sen. Graham’s sudden refusal to negotiate—he insists that Reid’s surprise fast-tracking of reform is reckless and that he won’t support an immigration bill this year—has left Schumer scrambling for new Republican co-sponsors. While, on the house side, Democrats are determined not to repeat the health care debacle and be left at the Senate’s mercy. One well-placed House aide said Democrats are waiting in the wings and will move their own, less conservative bill only after the Senate acts. But what’s increasingly clear is that whatever the Senate passes will anchor the debate well inside a hard-on-enforcement framework.
“The architecture of this plan is one from a discussion with Graham,” says Karen Narasaki of the Asian American Justice Center, a longtime Beltway advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. “It’s a bipartisan bill [despite the absence of GOP co-sponsors]. It’s not a typical Democratic bill. And given the goal, which is to have a credible bipartisan bill, that makes sense.”
Gabe Gonzalez of the Center for Community Change, one of the lead members of the national Reform Immigration for America coalition, adds, “Republicans said they want enforcement first and now they’ve got it. So come to the table.”
Gonzalez and Narasaki both say they’re pleased to see momentum on immigration reform. But Gonzalez says the enforcement-first focus is troubling. "Some of the trigger questions really concern us,” he said, referring to the parts of the plan that require increased security and enforcement before anyone would be allowed to apply for documentation status.
Meanwhile, a growing number of lawmakers and advocates publicly and privately acknowledge Graham’s point: That comprehensive immigration reform will not pass this year. And even advocates who have been those most in favor of moving a comprehensive immigration bill this year warn against driving forward recklessly for electoral reasons alone. “Nobody’s interested in a kamikaze mission,” said Frank Sherry, executive director of America’s Voice and arguably the country’s most unwavering advocate for a comprehensive bill by whatever means necessary.
President Obama reinforced the point in responding to back and forth speculation about immigration reform Wednesday afternoon, telling reporters on Air Force One, "There’s still work that has to be done on energy, midterms are coming up, so I don’t want us to do something just for the sake of politics that doesn’t solve the problem.” That’s a softer way of agreeing with Graham’s recent tirades. "If you bring up immigration now, it’s doomed to fail," Graham said yesterday, adding that he does not think immigration reform will happen until 2012, after the next presidential election.
The House is getting ready, either way. Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ immigration task force, has drafted his own bill that is significantly less focused on enforcement. He and other House Democrats, who held a press conference demanding action on immigration earlier this week, are pressing the Senate to pass their own law before moving ahead with Gutierrez’s bill. “It’s in the Senate’s hands now to lead,” said a well-placed congressional, who also acknowledged that while Gutierrez’s draft has strong support in the caucus its likely to serve only as the negotiating counterweight for the final, likely more stringent bill.

The immigration law passed in Arizona last week has brought mass attention to the enforcement question, and to the crisis created by the failure to pass a reform bill. A number of other states have already begun talking about passing bills like the one in Arizona, which demands local cops check immigration status of anyone they suspect to be undocumented. The law has been widely panned as forcing wide-scale racial profiling. For advocates across the country, the Arizona law — as well as a suite of federal enforcement programs that have resulted in record-high deportations with little transparency — reveal the urgency of the problem and suggest immigrant families cannot wait for the political stars to align for a comprehensive reform package.
“There’s another reality other than the political game going on and that is that families are being divided and students being deported to places they don’t even know," said Pablo Alvarado, who directs the National Day Laborers Organizing Network. "Of course we want legalization and as long as there’s a political opportunity we’ll invest all our might to push for it. But I know that this debate may take a long time and meanwhile, there is so much suffering.”
Alvarado says a reform bill focused heavily on enforcement threatens to make the situation on the ground even worse for immigrant communities at a time when they are “under assault from states and also from collaboration between local police and federal immigration.” He suggested that putting all the political eggs in the comprehensive reform basket is not good enough and that immediate administrative action is needed to slow the deportation pipeline. Last year, the Obama administration deported close to 400,000 people, more than ever before in history. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has continued to carry out raids and programs deputizing local police as immigration enforcement agents remain in place.
Underlying this question about what to do in the immediate term is a discussion that’s been going on for years about the best way to approach immigration reform. “An omnibus bill could be useful if it’s possible to pass one that meets certain standards, that is decent," says Catherine Tactiquin, of the National Network for Immigration and Refugee Rights, which advocates for an approach to immigration policy that moves outside of the comprehensive immigration reform framework. "But there is also the possibility of other pieces of legislation, litigation and administrative action could get us closer,” she said.

That’s an idea that, given the hardening political realities in Washington, may be gaining traction. Narasaki, whose group has been a leading advocate for comprehensive reform for years, says “everyone wants progress. Whether this comes in the form of comprehensive reform or another solution that might be more administrative in nature, we need to get something done.”
Gonzalez of Center for Community Change, which has also been a leading actor in the comprehensive reform fight, says, “There’s a point at which we need to be true to our partners who are pushing for partial bills. We’re still going to move forward fully now with a bill, but there are real arguments about partial bills too.”
“We’re not at that point yet,” he added about moving away from the omnibus approach.