WASHINGTON — An ambitious leader who tends to see opportunity in crisis, President Obama has been criticized, even by some supporters, for attempting to do too much too soon. But it took the Arizona controversy to force his administration to consider tackling comprehensive immigration reform before the mid-term elections.
With the electorate roiled by the recession and rattled by the deficit, Democrats are looking at significant losses in November. They’ve already been bruised by a vicious (but necessary) fight over health care, and they aren’t in the mood for another battle royale.
And, let’s face it, the debate over immigration reform will be contentious, protracted and polarized, uglier, in all likelihood, than the polemics over health care. After all, immigration raises the specter of race and ethnicity — subjects that don’t lend themselves to low-key, thoughtful discussion.
But those charged with responsibility for the public weal don’t always get to choose the most politically opportune moment to act. Sometimes, if you’re an elected official, you just have to do the right thing when the time comes. And the time has come for comprehensive immigration reform.
By passing an ugly law that practically mandates racial profiling, the Arizona Legislature brought the problem to the doorsteps of Congress. Its members would be complicit in the shameful Arizona conduct if they refused to pass legislation that secures the borders while giving illegal workers a pathway to citizenship. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called the Arizona law “a wake-up call for the federal government to act.”
With the blessing of then-President George W. Bush, Congress tackled immigration reform in 2007. But the effort died when the GOP base rebelled against efforts to naturalize illegal immigrants already here.
Republicans have been reluctant to offer a pathway to citizenship since then. As Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) put it Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “. . .Until you secure the border, trying to really have an overall reform package on immigration just simply can’t be done.”
That’s not to suggest Democrats are uniformly in favor of a comprehensive plan. They’re divided — reflecting the unease many of their voters have with illegal immigration. In cities and towns across the country, from Iowa to Georgia, schools have been overwhelmed by children who don’t speak English; hospital emergency rooms have been overstretched by uninsured immigrants; and neighborhoods have been transformed by transient populations of working-age men living together in single-family dwellings.
The irony is that the United States practically invited undocumented laborers into the country during the go-go ‘90s, when houses needed to be built, hotel rooms needed to be cleaned and babies with working moms needed to be tended. Back then, agribusinesses, construction companies and carpet-makers, among others, demanded a steady supply of cheap labor.
Many of those workers started families, paid taxes and even established small businesses. Lawn care workers started landscape companies. Maids started cleaning businesses. Nannies opened childcare centers. The nation that thinks of itself as the “shining city on a hill” would be downright mean to suggest that those workers don’t deserve a path to citizenship after several years here.
“God has been good to America, and we need to love all of God’s children,” said Rev. Gregory M. Williams, president of Atlantans Building Leadership for Empowerment, a non-profit which advocates for social justice. “It’s a complicated issue, but we have to start somewhere to rectify this broken system.”
Williams, pastor of Holsey Temple CME Church, is among the leaders of a pro-reform “faith walk” and rally planned for Saturday in Atlanta, one of several rallies planned around the country. He and other advocates hope to persuade Congress that the time to do the right thing is right now.