Immigration Reform in 2010

Democratic Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez (IL) introduced a new bill in Congress yesterday – “the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009” or “CIR ASAP” for short. Mr. Gutierrez, who is chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force, has described the bill as the product of months of collaboration with civil rights advocates, labor organizations, and members of Congress. More than 80 co-sponsors have already signed on to the legislation.

The bill is geared to promote family unification and includes a component relating to the Dream Act. (For those who are not aware, the Dream Act would provide certain undocumented immigrants who graduate from a U.S. high school the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency –  the bill is intended to alleviate the hardship faced by children who accompanied undocumented parents into the U.S.) The bill also creates a legalization program for other categories of undocumented immigrants and their spouses and children. In addition, the bill includes provisions calling for enhanced border security, improved detention conditions, increased due process requirements for foreign nationals, and increased employment verification requirements.

Mr. Gutierrez has commented on the timing of the bill as a call to take up the subject of immigration reform in the New Year, with no excuse.

So will 2010 be the year that this country finally sees action on comprehensive immigration reform?  It is hard to believe, considering the tough economic times the U.S. has labored through in 2009, troubles that we have yet to see our way out of. And a bad economy is an unlikely harbinger of immigrant reunification movements, or so-called amnesty. The Washington Post measures almost three years since the last time the subject of comprehensive immigration reform reared its head before dying. And that at a time when the unemployment rate stood at 4.6 percent. The fact that the unemployment rate is now more than double that does not bode well for CIR ASAP.

On the other hand, immigration reform is so very, very overdue that maybe even the difficult economic climate cannot postpone it any further.  Advocates of reform argue that fixing the immigration system is good for American workers. And I believe that on this argument rests the success or failure of CIR ASAP or any proposed immigration reform.

For this bill or any proposed immigration legislation to succeed in these tough times, Americans must be prepared to accept the idea that more legal jobs for foreign workers in the U.S. does not necessarily equal fewer jobs for American workers. And what’s more, Americans must accept the possibility that policies that support the legal employment of foreign workers in the U.S. are a vital stimulus that will ultimately improve conditions for Americans. Recognizing this will mean recognizing that the prerogative of U.S. employers to hire illegal workers at wages that are not monitored by the U.S. government is detrimental to American workers; that despite the high unemployment rate, there are a wide range of jobs that few U.S. workers are willing to do; and that economic growth fueled by increased access to foreign labor creates jobs for Americans.

But whether Americans are willing to put their faith in the benefits of immigration reform to the American worker remains to be seen. I hope that 2010 does not consolidate a trend of proposing legislation solely to communicate platform positions to potential voters. In an area as divisive as immigration, and one arguably in need of a complete overhaul, I fear that it is tempting for politicians to support a piece of untempered legislation solely to communicate solidarity with voter groups that are likely to look favorably on bills that promote immigrant interests.

Compromise is the bedrock on which rests the success or failure of countless reform initiatives, and immigration is no exception. I hope that pro – immigrant advocates do not push unpopular measures so hard that they alienate swing votes and kill well-intentioned bills before they ever have a chance of being acted upon. As much as I want to see comprehensive immigration reform in 2010, I would rather see some tangible benefit to at least some of the millions of foreign nationals who are currently excluded from legal residence and employment in the U.S., than stand behind a bill that is so inflammatory that it guarantees a stalemate that will never be resolved.