Immigration Front & Center

As the GOP contest heads to Florida, and later to Nevada, New Mexico and other states with large Hispanic populations, watching the candidates tie themselves into a pretzel over the issue of immigration reform will be like the scene in “Men in Black II” when the worms engage in a game of Twister. It ain’t going to be pretty.

Mitt Romney has the toughest assignment and not because he once, by mistake, used a slogan associated with Fidel while campaigning four years ago. Romney’s burden has been that immigration is the one issue where he saw an opening to try and outflank Newt Gingrich on the right. Romney’s insistence that all undocumented immigrants “self-deport,” that there be no pathway to citizenship for those who came here without papers, and his fierce opposition to the DREAM Act all guarantee that he will have a tough time convincing Latinos that he understands the challenges facing them.

Gingrich’s proposal for World War II-style civilian boards to assess the claims of immigrant neighbors who have been here for a long time – Gingrich cites the figure 25 years – and allow the boards to permit some long-time immigrants to stay here, without citizenship, can only be seen as humane when it is contrasted with the positions of his opponents. Gingrich gets a smidgen of credit for breaking with the “deport ‘em all” stance of the hard right, but only a smidgen. He, too, opposes the DREAM Act.

Turbo-Catholic Rick Santorum has distinguished himself on the issue of immigration reform during the debates by repeating, ad nauseum, that undocumented immigrants did not just break the law once but continue to break the law by working without authorization or with false documents. Not a word of compassion has ever passed his lips on the subject.

Compassion, of course, is not the only thing missing from the GOP’s anti-immigrant stance. Responsibility is too. For fifty years, the United States – our companies, employers and our government – have given the equivalent of a big wink to our neighbors south of the border. There has been no serious effort at enforcement of the laws and, in the case of employers, whole business plans have been launched and succeeded, premised on the supply of exploitable, undocumented workers. It cannot be asserted with a straight face that the undocumented, and they alone, bear responsibility for the current situation.

Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, suggests the GOP take a different tack in an important op-ed in this morning’s Washington Post. The most important point Bush makes is this: “The American immigrant experience is the most aspirational story ever told. Immigrants left all that was familiar to them to come here and make a better life for their families. That they believe this is possible only in America is the best expression of American exceptionalism I know.” Here is a way for the GOP to take one of its most common tropes, American exceptionalism, and instead of using that phrase to demean others, Bush suggests employing it to welcome others. That is not only a more humane way to look at the issue, it is smarter politics.

Bush also calls for comprehensive immigration reform, as did his brother, former President George W. Bush. It should be remembered that in 2004, the GOP took its largest slice of the Latino vote in its history because Bush refused to endorse the anti-immigrant hardline some in his party advocated. But, while Jeb Bush calls for comprehensive immigration reform in his article, he ducks the key issue: Republicans tend to call any effort to create a pathway to citizenship “amnesty.” Of course, every proposal at reform I have seen sets a pretty stiff penalty in terms of fines and waiting periods before the undocumented can regularize their legal status and proceed to seek citizenship. We change the penalties for breaking our laws all the time. Assessing a big fine is not the same thing as amnesty, and it is dishonest of the GOP candidates to call it such, but call it such they do, repeatedly.

The issue of immigration reform also touches the issue of religious liberty. In 2006, after the U.S. House passed a law that would have made Catholic Charities guilt of “alien smuggling” by serving undocumented workers at a soup kitchen, educating undocumented children in schools, or caring for an undocumented patient at our hospitals, Cardinal Roger Mahony said that he would encourage all Catholic institutions to break such an unjust law. In Alabama currently, the only reason a similar law has not taken effect, a law that infringes on the right of the Church to fulfill its mission to care for the poor and the needy regardless of their legal status, is because the federal Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against it, charging that immigration is a federal issue. In a debate last week, Gingrich said he would remove the DOJ suit against that law and he did not stipulate that he would file a new lawsuit against Alabama on religious liberty grounds.

Of course, the Obama administration has a pretty dismal record on immigration. In addition to ramping up the number of deportations, it did precious little to get an immigration reform measure through Congress in the first two years of the administration, when Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate too. But, Obama will benefit by comparison. He may not have delivered for Latinos, and his support in that community is softer than it was four years ago, but he has never been hateful and it is difficult to see how any of his opponents could capitalize on his inaction when their promises to act would grievously cause harm to the Latino community.

I have a word of warning to the GOP. Demographics are not destiny, but they are important, and until that party sheds its anti-immigrant stance, it will be doomed to increasing marginalization in many states. Jeb Bush begins his op-ed claiming that: “In the 15 states that are likely to decide who controls the White House and the Senate in 2013, Hispanic voters will represent the margin of victory.” In 2016, and 2020, and 2024, that number will grow.

And, a word of warning for the White House: Don’t take Latinos for granted. They don’t want lip service. Latinos voters want justice for their undocumented brothers and sisters. It is vital that in making his case for another four years, President Obama place immigration reform at the top of his list of objectives and insist that the election be a mandate on the issue. He mentioned the issue in his State of the Union speech, but he mentioned many things in that speech. He needs to communicate to the American people that the issue will be a priority for him in such a way that, should he win, he can claim a mandate to enact meaningful reform. He must be explicit and repetitive on the issue, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind. Otherwise, Latinos may turn election day into a good day to stay home.

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