Immigration reform is far down on Washington’s “to do” list, after healthcare reform, the Afghanistan war, and job creation. But outside the Beltway, in America’s community centers and protest venues, you’d think someone had already pushed the hot button to bring this always-simmering issue to a boil.
Though the Obama administration and the Democrats who control Congress are not expected to take up immigration reform until later this year – and possibly not till the midterm elections are over – both sides are already rallying their grass roots in anticipation of a fight that, some say, could make the great immigration debate of 2007 look like a playground spat.
The end of 2009 saw opponents of reform organizing dozens of anti-immigration “tea parties,” while pro-reform groups coordinated thousands of strategy sessions with local activists across the country.
Both sides feel a fresh sense of urgency. Those who oppose immigration reforms that would legitimize some of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States say reform makes even less sense now that the recession-racked US economy is losing jobs and has a 10 percent unemployment rate. Those who favor a path to legalization for illegal immigrants and a more open-door immigration policy see the most opportune political climate in years, with a Democrat-controlled White House and Congress.
For its part, the Obama administration appears to have begun laying the groundwork – increasing border security and law enforcement – to move soon on reform legislation.
But public positions on the issue have, if anything, become more complicated since the 2007 debate on immigration reforms proposed by President Bush.
“This issue is one that Americans have seen a lot more of – moving from the national stage to state and local communities,” says Pete Brodnitz, principal partner at Benenson Strategy Group, a consulting firm that conducts its own polls.
“Americans have a more knowledgeable and nuanced opinion than they did a few years ago,” says Mr. Brodnitz. “They understand that the issue is really complicated and not lending itself to easy solutions.” Benenson’s most recent poll in June found that 86 percent of American voters given details of comprehensive reform want Congress to pass a plan.
Other polls show a slightly less rosy picture. A Pew survey from April found that the proportion of Americans who favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants – if they pass background checks, pay fines, and have jobs – has risen since 2007, up from 58 percent to 63 percent. But it also showed that partisan differences have grown: Democratic support for reform has jumped from 62 to 73 percent, while Republican support for reform has fallen from 56 percent in 2007 to 50 percent in June.
In some states, conservative activists are mobilizing to try to stop immigration reform before it gets going. On Nov. 14, more than 50 “Tea Party Against Amnesty and Illegal Immigration” rallies took place across the country.
Granting amnesty will create competition for the millions already out of work, says Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has 250,000 members and is preparing to barrage Congress with e-mails and phone calls. “Flooding the market with more wage-suppressing labor is not the answer.”
Four days after the antireform “tea parties,” Hispanic immigrants and their supporters jammed themselves around an oak table at the Central American Resource Center in downtown Los Angeles, paying rapt attention to a speaker phone.
“There is no more time to wait,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, through the speaker phone. “We have Democratic majorities in the US House and Senate. President Obama made a campaign promise of major immigration reform in his first year in office.”
It was one of 900 “house parties” held nationwide Nov. 18, and attended by more than 50,000 immigrants to discuss reform strategy. They are the front line of an immigration reform movement that has been quietly smoldering since 2007 and has begun to mobilize again.
“This movement never dropped off the radar, as many people seem to think,” says Robert Gittelson, a reform advocate affiliated with Fair Immigration Reform Movement. The 2006-07 rallies brought thousands of immigrants onto the streets of Los Angeles and other cities, but they failed to get Congress to pass reform.
In a Nov. 13 address, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano sketched the Obama administration’s strategy to get reform passed this time. Ms. Napolitano talked about a “three-legged stool” being “a commitment to serious and effective enforcement, improved legal flows for families and workers, and a firm but fair way to deal with those who are already here.”
Napolitano was laying the groundwork for reform, observers say. She was making the case that the US has significantly improved its enforcement actions through border security (including the construction of a 600-mile fence along the US-Mexican border and an increased border patrol force), increased arrests of gun smugglers, a crackdown on employers of illegal workers, and progress in eVerify, a voluntary program for companies to screen the residency status of potential employees.
Such actions, along with the bad economy, have reduced illegal entry into the US since 2007, Napolitano said. These changes should “change the immigration conversation,” she suggested, helping the US move on to address the inefficient legal immigration system and the status of millions of illegals already here.
“We need Congress to create the legal foundation for bringing the millions of illegal immigrants in this country out of the shadows,” Napolitano said, adding that the US should “require them to register and pay taxes they owe, and enforce the penalties that they will have to pay as part of earning legal status.”
Public sentiment sharpens
But many observers, even those who support some kind of reform, feel the time is not ripe.
There’s a sharpening sentiment in favor of restricting immigration, says Joseph Nevins, a political scientist at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who has studied illegal immigration and the US-Mexican border. He points to “birthers” who question President Obama’s citizenship, as well as Rep. Joe Wilson’s shout of “You lie!” in response to Mr. Obama’s assertion that healthcare reform would not insure unauthorized immigrants, as evidence of a deep-seated skepticism that may be hard to overcome.
“At a time of deep economic downturn, and with anti-immigrant sentiment strongly in the air, the present-day possibilities of passage of any legislation aimed at reducing the repressive laws and exclusion endured by immigrants are daunting,” says Professor Nevins.