The Defeat of Immigration Reform in the U.S. – Now What?

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

Some weeks after the U.S. Senate failed to muster the necessary votes to deal with America’s immigration challenges, a clearer picture is emerging of what happened and what needs to happen next.

Atlantic Currents logoAtlantic has supported The Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform and a number of other groups working for a fairer immigration policy since 2004. We’ve made a total of $13.2 million in grants so far. So it’s a major priority of the foundation, and we’ve worked closely with the leading groups in the movement, whose work in the past few years has been nothing short of heroic. Long after nativist ranters like Lou Dobbs, whose constant drumbeat of fact-impaired broadcasts stoked opposition to the bill, have faded from memory, advocates like Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum, Cecilia Muñoz of the National Council of La Raza, and Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change will be remembered, along with many other leaders, for their work to keep open the door to the American dream for newcomers.

But of course their work, and therefore ours, is not over yet.

Immigration reform has a lot of moving parts. Maintaining the security of the country’s borders, which unfortunately came to dominate the entire debate, is certainly one of them, though as is so often the case, many of the steps taken or proposed toward this end – like the fence between the U.S. and Mexico – bear little relationship to real security while calling to mind historic follies like the Berlin Wall.

Most important, in our view, is a path to legalization for the estimated twelve to fifteen million non-citizens who are here without proper documents – either because they overstayed their visas or entered the country illicitly, compelled to leave their homelands by economic necessity in order to support their families. Though you wouldn’t know it from the tenor of much of the debate, the vast majority of these immigrants are hardworking people who contribute much more to the society, financially and otherwise, than they ever take from it. If these newcomers follow the path, as there is every reason to believe they will, of immigrants to the U.S. since the early 19th century (virtually all of whom, from the Germans to the Irish, were as vilified in their day as today’s immigrants from the global south), they will learn English and come to identify as Americans, while contributing to the ethnic and cultural diversity that is a leading aspect of the country’s remarkable strength and resilience.

Denying a path to earned citizenship for these neighbors will not make them disappear. Indeed, given the inexorable pace of globalization, in the absence of policies which strengthen opportunity in their home countries, the number of undocumented workers in the U.S. will continue to grow. Significant sectors of the economy would virtually collapse without their labor. So the choice before us is not between reform and having no undocumented workers. It is between reform and a kind of de facto apartheid – a stateless population three times the size of Ireland, whose work we depend on but to whom we refuse to extend the most basic of human rights. No free society can indefinitely tolerate that.

So we must go forward, and gird up for the long haul. There is no guarantee that any bill worth having will emerge in the remainder of this Congress, as an election year approaches, or even in the term of a new President, assuming he or she is committed, as President Bush in his weakened state is, to some essential elements of fair reform. At the same time, the organizations we support will have to remain strong to fend off the wave of anti-immigrant bills at the state and local level.

Our initial thoughts are that the campaign going forward must learn from and build upon the lessons of the last few years.

First, it has to raise the price of engaging in openly racist or racially coded appeals. It became disgustingly clear toward the end of the Senate debate, as hate calls flooded into legislative offices, that for too many Americans, it is the color and accent of many of today’s immigrants that is the driving force behind restriction. Every critic of immigration reform is not a racist, but the racists among them must be identified and isolated. This calls for a serious campaign of media monitoring and, when necessary, shaming.

Second, there needs to be a significant public education initiative about these newcomers, since we know from successful programs in some parts of the country that have recently experienced a substantial influx of immigrants that the more Americans know and understand, the more likely they are to welcome newcomers and support reform. Much resistance to reform is motivated by ignorance and anxiety, and the time to address it most effectively is not in the middle of a heated Senate debate. The groundwork must be laid for years before. Many talk radio callers rail about immigrants who “refuse” to learn English, but how many are aware of the vast chasm between those who are desperate to learn the language and the paucity of ESL classes in which they can enroll? It’s time to get such information into the public debate, and spur action.

Third, the further civic and political empowerment of new immigrants is imperative. Immigrants and their allies showed last year, in peaceful rallies and marches all across the country, that they intend to speak on their own behalf, not just be spoken for. Many new immigrants who came here through legal channels have since become citizens. They and many of those who came before them are deeply troubled by what they saw on display in the Senate, and they need to be assisted through non-partisan voter registration drives to take their proper place in a democracy – as voters, to whom the people’s representatives are accountable.

Finally, for Atlantic, we will work to strengthen the connections among organizations working on immigration issues in four countries in our network – not only the U.S., but also Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which have only in recent years come to experience and in-flow, not an out-flow of people; and South Africa, whose democracy is being strained by the challenge of integrating millions of refugees, including many fleeing political repression and economic collapse in neighboring Zimbabwe. Migration is a global phenomenon, and we must respond to it with approaches that are global in scope.

As always, I welcome your comments on these and any other issues that Atlantic is involved with.

Gara LaMarche