October 6, 2006


Our Congress Debated Immigration Reform For Two Years, And All We Got Was This Lousy Fence Bill?

By Frank Sharry

How did we get from there to here?

The past two years has witnessed an extraordinary set of developments in the U.S. immigration policy debate.  It’s worth recalling some of the high and low lights…

Following his re-election, President George W. Bush makes comprehensive immigration reform a top priority for his second term. In December 2005, and in response to talk radio, talk TV, and the Minutemen, House leaders turn their backs on an increasingly unpopular President and pass the harshest immigration bill in 80 years. In the spring of 2006, millions of immigrants and their allies take to the streets in protest. In an Oval Office address, the President declares that the time has come to get control over the nation’s borders by combining tough enforcement with a realistic framework for legal immigration. In a rare display of bipartisan problem-solving, a comprehensive immigration reform bill passes the Senate that combines tough border and workplace enforcement measures with more worker and family visas and a path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants in the U.S. In a series of independent polls, the public demands action from its leaders and declares its preference for the Senate approach. The stage is set for difficult but promising negotiations with the House. 

And then, in an extraordinary display of cynical election-year calculation (miscalculation?), House leaders sidestep a conference committee with the Senate, mock the bi-partisan Senate bill by labeling it the “Reid-Kennedy bill,” and take their base-turnout strategy on a summer road show of “faux hearings.” Upon returning to Washington for the last month of pre-election legislative action, the House Republican leadership pieces together a set of sweeping legislative measures straight out of their previously-passed enforcement-only bill, has them approved on the House floor (again), and attempts to impose its will on the Senate by adding them to must-pass appropriations measures. 

Thanks to determined opposition from members on both sides of the aisle, cooler heads prevail and stop most of the sweeping House measures from becoming law. Senators Specter (R-PA), Gregg (R-NH), and Warner (R-VA), all of whom supported the comprehensive Senate immigration bill, refuse to yield to aggressive backroom attempts by House leaders to add the anti-immigrant bills to spending measures. Senators McCain (R-AZ), Graham (R-SC), Martinez (R-FL), Hagel (R-NE), Brownback (R-KS), and Craig (R-ID) among others, continue to speak out forcefully for comprehensive reform as the only way to truly fix the problem. And just as heroically, Senators Reid (D-NV), Kennedy (D-MA), Salazar (D-CO), Feinstein (D-CA), Durbin (D-IL), Lieberman (D-CT), and Obama (D-IL), among others, maintain their steadfast support for comprehensive reform in the face of a crass pre-election attempt to paint Democrats as “soft on illegal immigration.” 

This spirit of bipartisanship is mostly absent in the House, but Democratic House leaders such as Minority Leader Pelosi (D-CA), Minority Whip Hoyer (D-MD), members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and many others, add their voices to those who rightly denounce the House tactics as the triumph of bad politics over good policy. Courageous Republican voices, such as Jim Kolbe (R-AZ), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), as well as others, bravely make the case for a comprehensive approach.

In the end, Congress appropriates more money for border security, approves a measure to make tunnel-building illegal, and in its highest profile “accomplishment,” authorizes the construction of 700 miles of fencing along our 2,000 mile border with Mexico. (In fact, Congress authorizes 700 miles of fence in the “Secure Fence Act” but only appropriates enough money for DHS to build approximately 90 miles!)

Is this the best we can do?

This is what passes for political leadership? Refuse to convene a conference committee to negotiate a far-reaching reform on a pressing policy priority? A political road show aimed at throwing red meat to a minority of voters in hopes that they get angry enough to show up in November? Playing “gotcha” politics anchored in cynical disregard for the intelligence of American voters? A fence to nowhere with funds from nowhere? Is the failure to deliver workable reform one of the reasons Congress’ approval rating is so low?   

What’s next?

What’s next is the election. And the election results will have a considerable impact on future prospects for comprehensive immigration reform. 

If House Republicans retain or expand their current majority and conclude that their hard line on immigration helped them do so, one suspects that Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) will continue to be the face of the House Republican agenda on immigration issues. If House Republicans lose numerous seats or their majority, then prospects for comprehensive immigration reform will improve significantly. We believe there has been and will be a bipartisan majority for workable comprehensive reform in the House, no matter which party is in the majority. The main question is whether the leadership will allow this majority to work its will.

Whether the Senate is led by Republicans or Democrats, the upper chamber has already proven its ability to enact architecturally-sound comprehensive reform. The challenge for the Senate will be to improve on its 2006 bill so that it not only passes with strong bipartisan support, but works once implemented.

What about a lame duck session of Congress? Some proponents of comprehensive immigration reform are holding out hope that something good might happen when Congress returns the week after Election Day. We would be pleased to be proved wrong, but we are not opti-mistic. After all, what are the chances the House Republican leadership, after spending six months trashing comprehensive immigration reform, will come back in November and enact comprehensive immigration reform? 

In fact, the more likely scenario is that House leaders will return determined to attach some or all of the sweeping enforcement-only measures rebuffed in September to must-pass appropriations measures. We hope and expect our allies in both parties and in both chambers will continue to resist this backdoor attempt to enact measures that will only serve to make our broken immigration system more dysfunctional.

What’s needed?

We believe that the immigration debate will continue to roil American politics and American communities, and that voters will become more insistent that our leaders lead. We believe they will become more demanding that Congress and the President size up problems in their full dimensions so that our responses are realistic and workable. We believe they will intensify their call on Congress to solve complex problems like the broken immigration system with comprehensive, common-sense, bipartisan solutions—instead of the partisan polarization and paralysis we have today.

In the immigration debate, this would mean that we stop ignoring the facts of life. We can no longer ignore the fact that the U.S. economy is increasingly dependent on an increasingly integrated labor market with the world in general and Latin America in particular. We can no longer ignore the fact that 500,000 workers settle in the U.S. without legal status each year in part because there are only 5,000 visas for full-time low-skilled service workers. We can no longer ignore the fact that our family reunification system is badly backlogged and keeps spouses and children separated from loved ones for years. We can no longer ignore the fact that 20 years of enforcement-only strategies have failed to reduce illegal immigration, but have instead increased smuggling fees, the proliferation of fake documents, and the number of gruesome migrant deaths in the Arizona desert.  We can no longer ignore the fact that the majority of the 12 million or so undocumented immigrants in this country work hard, live in families, and have been settled in the U.S. for years, making up 5% of the U.S. labor force and living as welcome members of many local communities.

We look forward to a continuing debate over how to reform our immigration laws so that we regain control of our borders, strengthen our economy, reunite families, level the playing field in the workplace, protect civil rights, and renew our nation’s commitment to citizenship. We sincerely believe that replacing the broken status quo with a 21st century regulatory system that works is a matter of “when,” not “if.” We are confident that the next Congress will move beyond fences and slogans to fixes and solutions.

Frank Sharry is Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, a non-profit, non-partisan pro-immigration advocacy group.

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