Lost in all the news coverage of the ongoing negotiations between the White House and Congress on the “fiscal cliff” is the issue of immigration reform. Pew Hispanic Research estimates that approximately 11.1 million unauthorized individuals lived and/or worked here in the United States in 2011.
According to U.S. law, a person is illegally present in the country if they have entered without authorization, received permission to enter but have stayed beyond the permissible period, or have violated the terms of their entry.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that between 40 and 50 percent of the total undocumented population came into the U.S. legally through our various ports of entry. The rest entered without authorization by illegally crossing one of our borders, or evading customs and immigration inspectors at ports of entry.
Past bipartisan support for reform
Over the years, Congress has acted. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 granted legal status to undocumented aliens who had been present since 1982. But the law also sanctioned employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers, and increased enforcement at U.S. borders.
The 1986 law was signed by Republican Ronald Reagan, who was governing with a Democratic Party-controlled House of Representatives, and a Republican-led Senate. Bipartisanship prevailed.
New and more comprehensive reform is long overdue. However, that bipartisanship in Congress that was present in the mid-1980s does not seem to be available to current President Barack Obama. It certainly was not the case in his first term, especially after the arrival of Tea Party Republicans in Congress in 2011.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, then Senator Obama famously promised to sign reform into law during his first term. Sadly, that did not happen.
At a forum hosted by Univision at the University of Miami in September, 2012, President Obama said: “My biggest failure is that we haven’t gotten comprehensive immigration reform done…but it’s not for lacking of trying or desire.”
In October, the President was being interviewed by the editorial board of the Des Moines Register. The publication reported that Mr. Obama said he was “fairly confident” that reform could be achieved in a second term.
“And I want to get it done because it’s the right thing to do, and I’ve cared about this ever since I ran back in 2008.”
He has indeed. President Obama has advocated for a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would provide a pathway toward citizenship, along with stricter border enforcement. But he needs cooperation from lawmakers.
The lack of Congressional cooperation ultimately led the president to institute the “deferred action” policy which provides an opportunity for undocumented young people in the U.S. to have legal status if they meet certain criteria. Some estimates had this presidential action helping anywhere between 800,000 and 1.4 million young people who previously lived in fear of deportation.
As supportive as folks like me are of this policy—I don’t know many people who want to see young people who identify as Americans, want to start businesses and raise families in the U.S. be sent back to countries they don’t remember or identify with – it was a temporary move, not a permanent solution. For that permanent solution, the President needs congressional action.
Will President Obama have that support given his overwhelming Electoral College victory in November 2012? Or will the start of a new year bring another crisis like the ones Mr. Obama had to face upon entering office in 2009 which will once again push immigration lower on Congress’ list of priorities? Here’s hoping that’s not the case.
For his part, Mr. Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush told The Dallas Morning News shortly after leaving the White House in 2009 that in retrospect, he regretted pushing for Social Security reform after being reelected in 2004 instead of attempting to solve issues in our immigration system.
“If I had to do it over again, I probably would have run immigration after the ’04 election, before Social Security. I campaigned on both.”
President Bush even delivered an Oval Office address in May 2006 calling for Congress to reform the immigration system. He offered support for a pathway toward citizenship.
“Some in this country argue that the solution is to deport every illegal immigrant, and that any proposal short of this amounts to amnesty. I disagree…It is neither wise, nor realistic to round up millions of people, many with deep roots in the United States, and send them across the border.”
Earlier this week, former President Bush once again expressed support for immigration reform while speaking at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
The Dallas Morning News quoted him saying that “America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time. As our nation debates the proper course of action related to immigration, I hope to do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the contributions of immigrants.”
Could the 2012 election lead to the bipartisanship we need to achieve comprehensive reform?
In the 2012 election, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney took hardline positions on immigration enforcement and embraced the stances of the most conservative wing of the party. In fact, in a January Republican primary debate in Tampa, Governor Romney responded to a question from Adam Smith of The Tampa Bay Times by endorsing the idea of “self-deportation.” Not a wise move if you needed to earn the support of a healthy percentage of the fastest growing minority group in the country.
According to a Fox News Exit Poll, Governor Romney went on to lose the support of Latino voters to President Obama by a 71-27 margin. That was the lowest percentage that a presidential candidate had received since former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole earned just 21 percent of the Latino vote in 1996.
While it is true that the economy was the top concern for Latinos in the 2012 election, the harsh rhetoric from Republicans in their presidential primary likely eroded support for their party. In my opinion, it’s not that Latinos want immigration reform above all else. It’s the fact that many felt disrespected by what they heard in the Republican primaries. After all, the majority of the 50 million Latinos currently living in the United States were born in the country, or have legal status.
The election results also probably led to a change of heart on the issue of immigration reform for many influential conservative commentators. Shortly after President Obama had been projected to win a second term, Fox News’ Sean Hannity publically stated that he had “evolved” on the issue, according to Politico.
“It’s simple to me to fix it. I think you control the border first. You create a pathway for those people that are here – you don’t say you’ve got to go home. And that is a position that I’ve evolved on. Because, you know what, it’s got to be resolved,” Mr. Hannity said.
“The majority of people here, if some have criminal records you can send them home, but if people are here, law-abiding, participating for years, their kids are born here, you know, first secure the border, pathway to citizenship, done. You can’t let the problem continue—it’s got to stop.”
But what is needed for immigration reform to pass in Congress and be signed into law by President Obama?
Clearly, the legislative process must take place. The Senate and House must pass proposals and then head into conference to iron out differences before voting again and sending the final approved legislation to the President. That will not be easy considering that Democrats control the Senate, while the GOP holds the leadership in the House. Divided government sounds good in theory, but it’s not always the case in practice.
The question is: which Senators and Congressmen will champion reform? One senator who would have fiercely opposed it and probably would have called any pathway toward citizenship “amnesty,” is South Carolina’s Jim DeMint. Luckily for reform supporters in both parties, Mr. DeMint has decided to retire from Congress to lead The Heritage Foundation, the prominent conservative think tank.
From 2005-2007, Arizona Senator John McCain and the late Senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy—a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat—worked together to introduce an overhaul of the immigration system. Border enforcement would be increased in exchange for offering a pathway toward citizenship for those who are already living and working in the U.S.
The legislation never made it out of the Senate, but I think it should be the starting point for any immigration reform proposal.
Could Senator McCain reintroduce a bill that would garner support from his Republican colleagues in the Senate, and Democrats? In my view, it’s unlikely that the gentleman from Arizona will, given his opposition to nearly everything supported by President Obama since he has been in office.
Recently, Mr. McCain has been the most vocal critic of Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, following her appearances on Sunday morning talk shows to discuss the tragic killing of four Americans in a consulate in Benghazi. The senator has been joined in his efforts by other Republicans, but no Democrats. That does not bode well for bipartisanship.
Still, elections matter and Republicans lost—the White House and seats in both chambers of Congress. Mr. Hannity’s evolution, along with what other GOP leaders both in office and out of it (former Florida Governor Jeb Bush) have said, provides cover for the fiercest of reform opponents. Hopefully enough legislators in the GOP will sound more like Mr. Hannity of Fox News, and evolve on the issue of a balanced approach toward reform. It’s in our national interest.