President Barack Obama said he was seeking to jump-start the conversation on comprehensive immigration reform in a recent speech at the U.S.-Mexico border, but questions remain as to whether current political realities make that possible.
Recalcitrant lawmakers, 2012 presidential politics, voter apathy, as well as the vocal and organized opposition, which argues that immigration reform amounts to amnesty, pose significant barriers to the efforts of immigration advocates who hope to see serious systemic changes.
“Yes, I think immigration reform is possible, but the question is a matter of when,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Appleby told Our Sunday Visitor he believes a majority of the American electorate favors immigration reform, but prioritizes it lower than economic and national security concerns.
“Historically, immigration has suffered during periods of economic downturn in our country,” said Appleby, who, along with other supporters of reform, sees the issue as intricately linked to economic and security matters.
“Our challenge is to convince both Catholics and the American public that this is part of preparing our country for the future and to compete in the 21st century. It’s not a distraction. It’s part of the solution,” Appleby said.
Obama framed immigration reform as a moral and economic imperative during his May 10 speech in El Paso, Texas.
“As long as the current laws are on the books, it’s not just hardened felons who are subject to removal, but sometimes families who are just trying to earn a living, or bright, eager students, or decent people with the best of intentions,” said the president, who blamed “border security first” Republicans for stymieing progress.
“I think the GOP has been dragging their feet and been putting up obstacles up to this point,” said Patty Kupfer, managing director of America’s Voice, a lobbying group that favors immigration policies allowing a path to citizenship.
But others note that Obama did not push comprehensive immigration reform during the first two years of his term when his fellow Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.
The issue has vexed Obama and his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, who advocated for reform in 2007, but saw those efforts, which had support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, thwarted by conservatives within the president’s own party.
As it was four years ago, immigration reform remains a politically sensitive issue, with lawmakers careful to not expose themselves to attacks that they are soft on border security or encourage lawlessness through amnesty.
DREAM Act failure
“This is kind of a political mine field. It makes politicians very vulnerable when they address it, which explains why they may not want to bring it up,” said Holy Cross Father Daniel G. Groody, a University of Notre Dame professor who has written extensively and produced documentaries on immigration.
Father Groody told OSV that anti-immigrant advocates now outnumber their opponents in telephone calls to Congress by an 800-to-1 margin.
“They may be smaller in number, but they’re very well-organized,” he said, adding: “It would be tragic if there is not enough political will to make some kind of changes. Right now, the low-hanging fruit of this issue would be passing the DREAM Act.”
Earlier this year, the Development, Relief, and Education of Minor Aliens Act stalled in Congress after criticisms that it amounted to amnesty and would encourage future waves of illegal immigration.
The DREAM Act, which was reintroduced this month in both houses of Congress after the president’s speech, would provide temporary residency to undocumented immigrants who serve two years in the military or complete four years of post-secondary education.
Meanwhile, Congressional Republican leaders have told reporters that the president has not engaged them on the issue. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of few Republicans interested in immigration reform, said he feared the president’s speech was “more political theater than reality.”
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner told the website Politico that he had received “no indication” from the White House that reform was really a priority.
The president has not announced plans to introduce such legislation, disappointing immigration advocates.
“Presidential politics will certainly be in play,” Appleby said. “It will be an issue, certainly in some swing states. I think that is where you will see this play out.”
“What the status quo does in reality is promote illegal behavior,” Appleby said. “We have a ‘Keep Out’ sign at the border, but a ‘Help Wanted’ sign at the workplace.”
Father Groody told OSV that reforming immigration “has to be possible” because the status quo is tearing apart families and damaging society with long-term consequences.
“Both parties agree the system is broken. The question is, do we have the political will to get this done?” he said.
Securing the border, creating a guest-worker program and offering paths to eventual citizenship to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are seen as the core tenets of comprehensive reform package.
In El Paso, Obama touted his administration’s security efforts, noting that more border patrol agents under his watch monitor the U.S.-Mexico border, which also has higher fencing in some areas.
What bishops want
Appleby said the bishops do not advocate for complete amnesty, and added that there is a legitimate need for border security.
“What the bishops promote would require [undocumented immigrants] to do a lot of things before they’re able to be a citizen: get back in line, learn English, pay a fine and back taxes. They would be paying their debt to society and getting themselves right with the law.”
However, Father Groody argued that civil laws on immigration have to recognize the reality that most migrants cross the border with or without papers because conditions in their native countries make it difficult for them to feed their families or live in safety.
“The long story of human history is about migration,” he said. “Political reforms are just a blip on the map in the sense that people are going to continue to migrate and to move.
“The question is, how many people will continue to suffer and be exploited in the meantime?” Father Groody said. “Creating a system where people don’t need to migrate, and that keeps families together and not living in fear in the shadows. That has to be the priority.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.
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