Immigration Reform: Going Nowhere!
The United States has always been “the promised land“, attracting peoples from across the globe since our earliest days as a nation. They came to escape religious and political persecution, to find economic opportunity and to build better lives for their children. Today, the furor over thousands of children coming across the border illegally from three Central American countries has eclipsed the failure of Congress passing comprehensive Immigration Reform — one of President Barack Obama’s top goals for his second term.
The Senate accomplished their half of the job on June 27, 2013, creating and passing a comprehensive plan that set a 13 year path to citizenship for over eleven million undocumented immigrants, as well as strengthening the borders. The 68 to 32 vote was the bi-partisan result of the ‘Gang of 8’ , four Democrats and four Republicans, who reached agreement after months of debate and compromise. They sent the bill to the House of Representatives where it has gathered dust ever since. The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, declared on its arrival that they would not even consider the Senate plan. He would not bring it to the floor for discussion and debate. They would create their own plan. That has not happened.
In fact, the Speaker was unable to garner enough votes from the Republican caucus to deal with the current crisis of children crossing the border. Money must originate in the House to finance any government program. The bill that finally passed fell woefully short of the 2.7 billion dollars asked by President Obama to deal with the humanitarian crisis. They also sent the message that the President should use executive orders to deal with the border problems . This was a most ironic suggestion, since the Republican controlled House had just passed a vote to sue Obama for abusing his executive powers in delaying a section of Obamacare —which they have voted to repeal over 50 times! Then the House adjourned to go on their five-week August recess.
Let’s take a look at past immigration reform laws. When JFK became president in 1961, he called on Congress to review and evaluate immigration law. This set the direction for the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 during the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency. This major law abolished earlier laws and systems in effect since1882 (Oriental Exclusion Act) and the1924 act based on national origins which favored northern and western European countries. It created a new policy to reunite immigrant families and attract skilled labor to the United States. During the next forty years, immigrants arrived increasingly from Asia, Latin America and southern and eastern Europe. It’s important to note that the hundred-year migration from Europe to Western Hemisphere countries between 1815 and 1915 was the largest migration of people in world history. We are indeed “A Nation of Immigrants”, the title of JFK’s memorable book.
In June, 2012, the president used executive authority to start a program that suspended deportations for two years of illegal immigrants under age 31who have been in the country since childhood and have met other requirements. Once this became known, thousands of young men and women lined up to apply for work permits in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Boston and Houston. By September, more than 72,000 were receiving approvals. Mostly Hispanics, they became known as the Dreamers.
What is the status of illegal immigration into the United States at present? The southwestern border with Mexico, where six of ten illegal immigrants have entered. has been fortified with stronger fences, additional agents, surveillance and drones. The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute found that immigration enforcement has reduced the border flow almost to zero. A significant factor is also the improvement in the Mexican economy versus the U.S. recession since 2008 with far fewer jobs here as an enticement. Mexico’s economy has grown at a faster pace than ours since 2004, while their birth rate has declined to 1.1 percent in the first decade of the 21st century from 3.2 percent in the 1960’s. Finally, the increased deportation rate by the federal government of illegal immigrants –nearing a peak of 300,000 in 2011– has kept the total population number stable. The central issue for reform is what to do about the 11.1 million undocumented immigrants already here.
It is important to recognize that most Hispanic Americans are neither illegal nor poor and unskilled, although that is the stereotype in many minds. They are long- time citizens, as was clearly seen in the recent 2012 election when they stood in line for hours in Florida, Colorado, Texas , Ohio and New Mexico to vote for President, Senators and Representatives. 71 percent voted for Barack Obama and 27 percent for Mitt Romney who had advocated “self deportation” as the solution for illegal immigrants, and a veto of the “Dream Act” if he were to be elected president. Since, the last time Congress considered comprehensive reform was in 2007, it is evident that the main impetus for Republicans to join Democrats in seeking reform at this time was the result of the 2012 election.
On Tuesday, January 29, President Obama gave a major address in Las Vegas and challenged Congress to act swiftly to put 11 million illegal immigrants on the path to citizenship. He spoke at a large high school, where many of the 2,000 students were Hispanic, and praised the bipartisan senate effort of the group of eight. Obama summed up his feeling of urgency when he said in plain language, “Most Americans agree that it’s time to fix a system that’s been broken for far too long.”
It is tragic that the Senate bill that met the challenge of immigration reform and provided a comprehensive solution was rejected on arrival by Speaker Boehner in the ongoing Republican battles with President Obama. We could be well on the way to implementation, if the Speaker had allowed a vote by the entire House. Then, the Democratic Representatives would have been joined by enough moderate Republicans to pass the bill — leading to President Barack Obama’s signature to make it law throughout the nation.