July 21, 2006

The Debate Right, Left and Center

By Frank Sharry
New America Media

WASHINGTON, DC — I’m a participant in the nation’s controversial immigration policy debate. I work in Washington, DC for a pro-immigrant organization trying to convince lawmakers to enact bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform.

We work with allies from across the nation and the political spectrum. We’re seeking federal legislation that will replace the dysfunctional status quo with a regulatory regime that brings immigrants and immigration out of the shadows and under the rule of law.

Having been in this debate for a quarter of a century, I’m familiar with its fury and cross-currents. The debate isn’t for the thin of skin. It tends to generate more heat than light. And as they say, if you can’t take the heat…

But recently, our efforts have come under especially heavy fire. Interestingly, the criticism comes from both the political right and the political left.

Stick up for immigrants and some anti-immigrant hardliner will accuse you of aiding and abetting terrorism. Call for targeted enforcement and some activist will accuse you of aiding and abetting the deaths of migrants in the desert.

Support an earned path to citizenship for the majority of the nation’s undocumented immigrants and some nativist will accuse you of selling out the nation’s sovereignty.

Tolerate some restrictions on the same legalization program and some activist will accuse you of supporting an apartheid-like scheme destined to rip families apart.

Support expanded legal channels for workers to enter on long-term temporary visas with robust labor protections and an eventual path to citizenship, and you better get ready to duck, because both extremes are loaded for bear: the hard right will accuse you of being an open-borders nut case and the hard left will accuse you of supporting a modern-day slave trade.

So, am I complaining? No. The overheated resistance is actually a sign of progress. It underlines how the cause of balanced and bipartisan comprehensive reform is beginning to marginalize the hotheads on both extremes in favor of a solution that can work and pass.

For most of the past two decades, this country’s debate over immigration has been polarized by hardliners shouting past each other. The arguments may be sophisticated, but the underlying themes remain the same: Let ‘em all in! Keep em all out! But something new is happening. A new center of political gravity is emerging.

This new center says let’s fix our broken immigration system in our lifetime; let’s walk and chew gum at the same time; let’s combine carrots and sticks in a way that works; let’s expand the path to citizenship for those seeking the American Dream, while expanding enforcement mechanisms that make the process safe, legal and orderly; let’s build a regulatory regime that delivers the labor and political rights wanted by immigrants and delivers the government’s control of the process wanted by the American people.

This new approach is championed by the likes of Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ). They’ve been joined by many others from both parties.

Just recently, the Senate passed an imperfect but unprecedented rough draft of comprehensive immigration reform by a margin of 62-36. The majority of those backing the measure were Democrats, but they were joined with a brave and hearty band of Republican reformers. Their collective determination to buck partisan politics for a stab at a pragmatic solution was inspiring.

The response? You guessed it.

The hard right is howling like stuck pigs, claiming the Senate bill is an “amnesty that rewards lawbreakers.” They cite distorted studies and conjure up images of millions of unassimilable new immigrants determined to overrun the nation. They favor the punitive enforcement-only bill authored by James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and enacted mostly along party lines in the House last December (yes, the bill that brought millions of immigrants and their allies into the streets this past spring).

Meanwhile, some on the hard left have turned their fire from the House bill onto the Senate bill, making the incredible claim that the Senate package isn’t much better than the House bill. Apparently, legalizing millions over the next 6-8 years, reuniting millions of family members in the next six years, providing millions of new permanent visas for workers, and giving farm workers and high school students the chance to earn citizenship isn’t much better than a House bill that makes felons out of undocumented immigrants and anyone who assists them.

No matter. The country is finally paying attention, and they get what the hardliners don’t. Solving the immigration riddle is going to require both enforcement and legalization. Public opinion polls consistently show that the American people are no longer falling for the old “either/or” debate. Their pragmatism is shining through. They want a “both/and” approach to immigration reform.

Unfortunately, the American people, desperate for a fix that works and the millions of immigrant workers and families desperate for a path to citizenship, are unlikely to get what they want. At least not this year.

Leaders of the House seem more interested in beating up on immigrants in the run up to the November mid-term elections. Instead of negotiating with their Senate colleagues on a bill, they’re holding “field hearings” around the country to drum up opposition to the Senate bill. They hope that anger at illegal immigration will move their hardcore “base” voters to turn out to vote, which will help them keep the majority in the House. They’re simply not interested in solving the problem in a balanced, or even in an unbalanced, fashion. They want an issue, not an accomplishment.

Unless something dramatic turns the tide, the House will run out the clock, the debate will continue to be a political football, and the hardliners will continue their efforts to polarize it.

The new center may not prevail this year—it’s still too weak while the old polarization is still too strong. But here’s a prediction: the correlation of strength will shift. And when it does, our nation’s lawmakers will finally change our immigration laws in ways that both respect the contributions of immigrants and respect the rule of law.

For the sake of our nation and its hardworking immigrant families, may that day come soon.

Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum in Washington, DC.

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