"Do or Do not. There is no try."

“Less Than American”: It Is In The Public Interest To Have People Assimilated And Participating Stakeholders In Our Democracy

Not so long ago, it seemed the debate over immigration reform was all about borders. Politicians competed to offer the most draconian solutions — higher fences, longer fences, electrified fences, armies of guards, fleets of drones, moats and crocodiles. Never mind that the Border Patrol had already more than doubled in a decade. Never mind that many of those here illegally never hopped a fence but simply overstayed a student or tourist visa. The nativist mythology has us under siege from relentless hordes striding toward Arizona on, in the fevered imagination of Tea Party Congressman Steve King, “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” To pacify the border neurotics, authors of the bill that passed the Senate last summer included $46.3 billion to militarize our southern flank.

Now, with the bill stranded in the House, it seems the immigration debate is all about citizenship. To opponents, the idea of offering 11-plus million undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship — even a 13-year slog like the one envisioned by the Senate bill — is anathema, so politically toxic that the measure’s most prominent Republican sponsor, Senator Marco Rubio, pulled back as if he’d put his hand on a lit stove. To proponents of comprehensive reform, or at least to activists on the issue, citizenship is the prize, and nonnegotiable.

It’s beginning to look as if advocates of fixing our broken immigration system will face an unpleasant choice: no bill at all, or a bill that legalizes the foreigners who are already here but does not offer most of them a chance to become citizens. On Capitol Hill several lawmakers are quietly drafting compromises that give the undocumented millions little hope of full membership in America.

The first thing to note is that this is progress. The Republican mainstream view has moved in the last year or so, from Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” to something considerably less callous. Most Republicans in Congress now say they can live with legalizing the undocumented as long as (a) we don’t call it amnesty and (b) we don’t reward lawbreakers by bestowing the precious gift of citizenship.

The second point that needs making — and my Times colleague Julia Preston made it last week — is that while citizenship is the priority for pro-immigration activists, to immigrants living here as a fearful underclass the aim is not so clear cut. For many of them, the priority is to be made legal, to come out of hiding and live their lives without the threat of deportation, without the risk of exploitation by unscrupulous employers, without wondering whether your spouse will make it home at night.

“The entire narrative behind comprehensive immigration reform has elevated the path to citizenship as this must-have component of an acceptable bill,” said Oscar Chacon, executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, a network of immigrant organizations that includes many foreigners here without visas. “What you hear from the undocumented is: ‘We like the idea of citizenship, but what really hurts us is that we are vulnerable, that I can’t easily get a job to feed my family, that I can’t drive a car without being at risk, that I want to be able to visit relatives back home and come back safely.”

Just to be clear, I believe (and so does Oscar Chacon) that deliberately creating a class of disenfranchised residents goes against the American grain. There are few precedents for consigning whole categories of people to a sub-citizen limbo, and they are not proud moments in our history. (See the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.) It is clearly in the public interest to have people become assimilated, taxpaying, participating stakeholders in our democracy. Most Americans polled, including a majority of Republicans, agree that those now in the country illegally should be allowed to eventually apply for citizenship.

If House Speaker John Boehner is willing to brave the fury of his extreme flank and put the matter to a vote, a path to citizenship stands a decent chance of passing the House with a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans. You might even think Republicans would want to get immigration settled and off the table so they could begin wooing Hispanic voters on more favorable ground — social issues, taxes, education. But among the people most immersed in this issue, I can’t find many who expect Boehner to suddenly become a statesman and defy his fanatics. In part, let’s be honest, that’s because the Republican stance is, “We protect America from Obama.” It is also in part because they fear newly enfranchised Hispanics will become Democrats — which the Republicans, by opposing citizenship, make a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So it may well be that supporters of immigration reform have to choose between half a loaf and none at all. Half a loaf might include a prospect of citizenship for some undocumented immigrants — the so-called Dreamers, who entered the country as children, and those in the military — but not the majority. If that’s the option, should Democrats swallow hard and take it?

Yes, and here’s why.

First, even without a prospect of citizenship, legalization would make the undocumented much safer from the family-wrecking heartbreak of deportation, which has continued at record numbers under President Obama. It would free them to press for better education for their children, to approach the police when they are victims of crime, to challenge abusive employers, to seek medical care without fear of exposure. Some advocates of citizenship-or-nothing suggest that the president should simply use his prosecutorial discretion to stop deportations altogether, as he has done for the Dreamers and undocumented soldiers. But the public would view that as a grievous abuse of power, and Congress might very well take away his authority. An executive order is no substitute for a protection enshrined in the law.

Second, the legislation has other good things going for it. It puts a little sense into our archaic legal immigration system, and establishes some meaningful protection against future illegal immigration (like holding employers rigorously accountable for assuring their workers have legal status, much more important than fortifying the border.)

Third, this is not the end of the story. We elect a new Congress in 2014, and another in 2016, and so on, and the electoral clout of Hispanics will continue to grow. “I’m a firm believer in the notion of incremental change,” Chacon told me. “The best public policies — look at gay rights — have evolved, they didn’t happen all at once.”

And fourth, even if many undocumented workers never make it to citizenship, the injustice will last for just one generation. Their children are citizens by birth. Young Latinos are reaching voting age at the rate of about 50,000 per month. I suspect many in that rising generation will remember, and punish, the politicians who decided their parents should remain less than American.


By: Bill Keller, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, November 24, 2013

November 26, 2013 - Posted by | Congress, Immigration Reform | , , , , , , ,

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