WASHINGTON — You might not have heard much about it, but immigration supporters held a huge rally on the National Mall two weeks ago. Though overshadowed by the spectacle surrounding the health care debate, they were out in large numbers: Tens of thousands gathered to urge Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, which would include a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already here.
President Obama’s critics frequently claim that he’s too ambitious, taking on too many complex and contentious issues. But the president doesn’t have much choice: There are several complex and contentious issues that have languished too long. Immigration reform is one of those.
It’s a shame that a common-sense bill, supported by the Bush administration, died in 2007 after a backlash from the Republican base. The right continues to denounce what its leaders call “amnesty,” but they haven’t offered a reasonable plan for helping hardworking painters and plumbers, maids and manicurists to come out of the shadows. Some undocumented workers left the country after the economic downturn, but many are still here — some of them parents of children who are American citizens.
What kind of country would deport promising teen-aged Americans just because their parents came from Guatemala or Gambia without permission? What kind of country would exploit the labor of workers but refuse to allow them the chance at legal status?
Just last week, Homeland Security had to tamp down controversy over a memo issued by a high-ranking border enforcement official who set a “quota” for deportations, even if his agents had to round up offenders whose only crime was lying on immigration documents. That approach, later disowned, would have contradicted a promise by the Obama administration to concentrate deportations on violent offenders.
It’s no wonder immigration activists are growing impatient with the president who has courted their support. Obama told the rally that he would start work soon on immigration reform; he has given his blessing to a framework offered by senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y). In a Washington Post essay last month, Graham and Schumer called for a high-tech “biometric” Social Security card; stronger border security; increased temporary access for low-skilled workers; and a “tough but fair path to legalization for those already here.”
Despite that pledge of bi-partisanship, few think the process will be anything but long and bloody — just like health care reform. And, in the end, there’s no guarantee of Republican votes.
Georgia’s Republican senators have already backed away from any support for a comprehensive plan. At a 2007 meeting of the state Republican Party, senators Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss were loudly booed for their work on legislation that would have tightened border security while also granting illegal workers a path toward citizenship. Neither man has mentioned anything that could be caricatured as “amnesty” since then.
Isakson told me last month that metropolitan Atlanta’s new status as a major hub for Mexican narco-traffickers demands a focus on border security. “It would be a gargantuan mistake to try to do some comprehensive legislation,” he said. (Isakson’s concerns about security are legitimate, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be addressed in a comprehensive bill.)
GOP presidential nominee John McCain, once an enthusiastic supporter of legislation that would strengthen border security while also legalizing undocumented workers, has similarly backed away — or sprinted away — from a comprehensive approach. Facing a strong primary challenge from a tea-party favorite, rightwing radio talk show host J.D. Hayworth, McCain recently wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and asked her to send the National Guard to patrol the border.
Even if the politics are difficult, Democrats might gain support with their base if they take up the cause of immigration reform. “It divides them (Republicans) worse than us,” Democratic pollster/strategist James Carville told a group of journalists last week. “Politically, I think it is a good issue for Democrats to bring up. It gives them (the GOP) fits, real fits.”
Carville’s blunt remarks underscored a demographic reality that shrewd Republicans also admit: as the nation grows browner, the GOP is increasingly a party of older whites. Vehement anti-immigrant rhetoric in the party’s ranks has alienated Latino voters.
That alone ought to give Republicans the courage to join with Democrats to adopt comprehensive immigration reform. And then there’s this: It’s the right thing to do.