Thursday, December 6, 2012

Is the Time for Immigration Reform Now?, or Now is the Time for Immigration Reform!


With the results in from Election 2012, a sea-change has occurred in the political prospects for comprehensive immigration reform. Let us step back for a second and see where the nation stands, and where it might go, with respect to meaningful reform.

For close to a decade, Congress has debated comprehensive immigration reform, which presumably would include (1) some kind of path to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants, (2) increased enforcement measures, and (3) reform of the legal immigration provisions of the U.S. immigration laws. As we all know, Congress has repeatedly failed to act on reform proposals, even failing in 2010 to pass a version of the DREAM Act that would have addressed a small subset of the immigration issues facing the nation.

In 2008, President Obama campaigned for office in support of comprehensive immigration reform.  After winning the election, he increased enforcement dramatically –- indeed, setting deportation records of nearly 400,000 a year in the last two years -- in hopes of convincing Republicans that the administration was serious about immigration enforcement. The President ultimately was unable in his first term to persuade Congress to pass immigration reform.

With the void in immigration reform at the federal level, states entered the fray. In just the last few years, several state legislatures, including those in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, and South Carolina, passed state immigration enforcement laws designed primarily to encourage “self deportation” by undocumented immigrants. Many Latinos found the debates surrounding those laws to be, at a minimum, insensitive. Some observers saw the support for the state measures as fueled at least in part by anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican, and downright racist sentiments.

Courts found most, but not all, of the major provisions in the state immigration enforcement laws to run afoul of the U.S. Constitution and intrude on the federal power to regulate immigration. Indeed, in the most well-known case, a conservative Supreme Court in June 2012 invalidated three of four core provisions of Arizona’s S.B. 1070 in Arizona v. United States.

Political action for immigration reform continued. In June 2012, after several years of tinkering with prosecutorial discretion in removal, the Obama administration unveiled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides undocumented immigrants who came as children to the United States to relief from removal and temporary work authorization (and, in some states, eligibility for driver’s licenses).

As a political consultant might say, DACA energized the base. Latinos as a group -- and a majority of other Americans -- supported DACA. And Latinos overwhelmingly supported President Obama over Mitt Romney in the 2012 Presidential election.

Recall that, during the Republican primaries, Romney supported Arizona’s S.B. 1070 and other measures designed to encourage “self deportation,” opposed the DREAM Act, and had as a top immigration advisor Kris “Deporter in Chief” Kobach, the archtitect of many of the state immigration enforcement measures. It is hard to see how any of these might have encouraged Latino about the possibility that Romney might be good on immigration.

Although hindsight often characterizes the Obama victory as overwhelming and even preordained, it was an extremely close race.  The result was far from certain in the days leading up to the election. Many credited Obama's victory at least in part to overwhelming Latino support (and the lack of enthusiasm generated among Latinos for Romney). Republican strategists now have gone back to the proverbial drawing board in an effort to figure out how to attract Latino voters.

Not long after the election, political leaders, including some Republicans as well as President Obama, expressed renewed support for immigration reform.  Earlier this week, former President George Bush emphasized in a speech that immigrants benefit the American economy and strongly suggested that Republicans should rethink their immigrant unfriendly positions if they want to attract Latino voters.

There also appears to be growing resistance to enforcement-only approaches to immigration. For example, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, an ally of the President, this week encouraged local law enforcement agencies to not adhere entirely to the Obama administration's Secure Communities program, which requires local law enforcement to provide federal immigration authorities with data about immigrants who are arrested. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's office, one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country, also announced this week that it would not follow the Secure Communities program to the letter.

All in all, the political time is right for comprehensive immigration reform.  However, for reform to become a reality, interested parties cannot rest on the laurels of an Obama presidential victory.  Rather, continued pressure -- like that that resulted in DACA -- is necessary to convince Congress to act.  President Obama is quite correct that he cannot do what Congress will not do.  However, immigrant rights activists, Latinos, and others who support responsible and humane immigration laws and policies must make sure that meaningful immigration reform remains on the front burner.  Otherwise, we will have to wait for the next Congress, next President, etc.


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