Immigration Reform, Not Political Poker
Soon after the 2012 elections ended, a wave of predictable knee-jerk reactions followed. Political pundits, news reporters, and immigrant advocates credited the New America for President Obama’s re-election. The Republicans jumped out first. They quickly acknowledged the need for immigration reform. They began floating flawed proposals, like the ACHIEVE Act, and discussed the shift from their campaign postures.
Meanwhile the Democrats decided to take time off to celebrate their victory. For all the talk by Obama supporters about the urgency of immigration reform during the campaign, they did not feel the need to start work on relieving at least some of the stress imposed by current policies on immigrant families until after the Christmas break.
Rather than merely displaying a healthy distrust of their opponents’ overtures, coupled with affirmative proposals of their own, several liberals shrilly ridiculed the change in outlook of Republicans. Neither party’s response was surprising. The Republican gestures and Democratic Party delay were merely the opening partisanship acts of the next round of immigration reform debates.
When it comes to fixing our immigration system, immigrant families cannot afford such partisanship.
In my view as a Riverside immigration lawyer, I hope Democrat diehards who clamored for immigration reform before the election and high-strung Republican opponents of legalization do not retreat into partisanship shells for the next four years. Immigration reform should not be reduced to political poker.
The Danger Of Backroom Wheeling And Dealing Within 24 hours of polls closing on election day, several political experts declared immigration reform a done deal in 2013. My view differs. If meaningful immigration reform legislation happens, in 2013 or beyond, it will not take place without a lot of consistent blood, sweat, and tears by supporters.
To be clear, I believe immigration reform will happen. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when. And what.
When I suggested last spring that once the elections were over, the GOP might change their tune and take the lead on dealing the cards on immigration reform, most folks thought I had lost my political marbles. Actually, I was right on the mark.
The next move belongs to Obama. Yet, since the election, there has been an eerie silence by the president on immigration issues. Even Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez recently noted Obama’s post-election absence from immigration reform talks. He told the Hill, a Washington-based newspaper, while both the Senate majority leader and the House Speaker have indicated reform is a legislative priority, Obama has been missing in action.
Shortly after Gutierrez’s remarks, loyal Hispanics and Democrats rushed to the president’s defense, saying he will launch the campaign in January, before he is sworn into his second term. The reality is likely different. Most Washington insiders assert the president’s inauguration speech will set the tone. They expect him to place a strong emphasis on immigration reform.
The question remains, once his speech is concluded, whether the president will personally assume leadership on the issue or defer to others. In his first post-election press conference, Obama said, “My expectation is that we get a bill introduced and we begin the process in Congress very soon after my inauguration.”
This means the president wants Congress to go first.
Why not deal the deck?
Could Obama’s strategy, even after reelection, rest on a lingering fear of public backlash? By letting his opponents lay out their proposals, Obama can avoid setting forth his own detailed blueprint until the public reaction can be gauged. After all, several pundits suggest immigration reform has a one year window for success. By 2014, they emphasize, it will be asking too much for those in Congress to vote for immigration reform provisions which might lead to their defeat in the mid-term elections.
I do not necessarily agree with this sentiment. But such political cowardice is not uncommon.
The Contours Of Obama’s Immigration Reform What might an Obama reform package look like? Good question. A glimpse is perhaps provided by Obama’s May 10, 2011 speech in El, Paso, Texas, in which he outlined a four part plan:
- Enhance Border Security Operations And Equipment
- Impose Stricter Penalties Against Employers Of Undocumented Workers
- Implement Guest Worker Programs
- Create Paths To Legal Residency And Citizenship
Several important immigration issues are not part of this condensed formula.
Given the change in the public outlook over the past 18 months, it seems the president should be able to put together an expanded legislative package in the coming year. As a deportation defense lawyer, at minimum, I’d like to see revamping the immigration court and immigration detention systems added to the list.
However, there are signs the list may shrink, not expand, in the coming months.
In the weeks which have followed Obama’s reelection, some Democrats have voiced support for ensuring the country’s borders are secure before new legalization paths are made available for undocumented immigrants already living inside the U.S. In a nutshell, therein lies the potential for massive immigrant disappointment in 2013.
Nearly 410,000 immigrants, many with deep family ties, were deported last year. Immigration audits of businesses reached an all time record. The joint task force on prosecutorial discretion has disappeared. Under Obama’s watch, more money has been spent and more resources expended on border security than ever before.
What more is needed to appease xenophobic nativists, who supposedly lost at the polls in 2012? The border, quite frankly, can never be absolutely sealed. If this is the litmus test for immigration reform, no genuine compromise can be reached, no authentic progress can be made.
Legislation which denies immigrants a path to legalization, or only allows it under onerous regulations, is not properly classified as immigration reform. Until Republicans, Democrats, and the president alike demonstrate true commitment to immigrants and their families, I have no plans to carry a white flag.
This is not the time for political surrender.
Carlos Batara is an Immigration Trial Attorney. He writes “I refuse to accept laws unfairly slanted against immigrants… I have no intentions to put my hands up and surrender.”