Is It Fixed Yet?
Published: September 9, 2007
New York Times
The immigration battle that ended this summer was a victory for the simple, straight-ahead approach. The supporters of comprehensive reform did not have the votes for their exotic blend of tough compassion, of punishing then rewarding illegal immigrants with a nonamnesty that everybody called amnesty. The Republicans’ bill-killing argument was: punish all the lawbreakers and seal the border, just seal it already.
Soon enough President Bush disowned his commitment to comprehensive reform and offered an executive-branch crackdown. States and local governments began whip-cracking. The country has made its bed and will have to sleep in it awhile, but a few developments suggest getting tough may not be as simple as advertised.
The courts are objecting. In Hazleton, Pa., and then in Herndon, Va., judges have ruled against harsh anti-immigrant ordinances. It turns out the First Amendment and the equal-protection clause cover noncitizens too. Herndon’s law forbidding day laborers and contractors to talk shop has been ruled unconstitutional, so it plans to shut down a successful day-labor hiring site rather than allow it to accept everybody, illegal immigrants too.
Meanwhile, a pillar of Mr. Bush’s crackdown, a Social Security purge to get illegal immigrants off the books, has been held up in the courts. Businesses said it would cause unjust layoffs of thousands of workers, citizens included. But now the Social Security Administration is warning that the nightmare is coming if the crackdown doesn’t proceed: a processing logjam holding up benefits for millions of Americans.
The nonnatives are restless. On Sept. 14, Washington will see the first rally by highly skilled immigrants, the engineers and Ph.D.’s who play by the rules and still get the visa runaround. Members of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network have allied with home-health-care and domestic workers. And a crackdown in Prince William County, Va., inspired a boycott and a fiery march last week led by a testy group called Mexicanos Sin Fronteras. You didn’t think they were just going to roll over, did you? They’re immigrants: smart, industrious self-starters, like your grandparents.
The debate is rotted. Republican presidential candidates are still playing ¿Quien es mas macho? Mitt Romney and Rudolph Giuliani are in their cardboard tough-guy armor, bickering about “sanctuary cities” and who used to treat his immigrant constituents more harshly.
Congress is back and may yet eke out little victories. A hearing was held in the House last week on the Strive Act, the smartest, most workable immigration bill left. There is support for two relatively uncontroversial provisions of the dead Senate bill, to help farms and farmworkers and to give an educational leg up to children who had no say in crossing the border illegally.
With the Republican minority tacking xenophobic amendments onto every bill in sight, the chances of real, broad immigration reform seem as bleak as ever. Some say it is time to consider throwing out the old arguments. Bruce Morrison, a former Connecticut congressman with an extensive immigration portfolio, makes an interesting pro-immigrant case for ditching comprehensive reform. Fix legal immigration first, he says — get those backlogs down, get a steady supply of nurses, engineers and M.B.A.’s flowing, and impose strict biometric workplace IDs so that all future hiring is legitimate.
Maybe then, he says, you will establish the trust you need to tackle the problem of the 12 million undocumented. Maybe the public mood will be more forgiving. Seems optimistic, but nothing else has worked.