A New Remedy for America’s Complicated Immigration History

Public and private will—not politics—will change the national immigration conversation

Our communities are changing. And that has big implications for our national conversation about immigrants and immigration.

The immigration debate in Washington tends to get caught up in politics, but that’s nothing new. Leaders around the country and across the political spectrum aren’t letting political calculations get in the way of an important realization: America will thrive when new Americans have the opportunities, skills, and status to reach their fullest potential.

To put it another way, when we help everyone in our communities reach their potential, we as a country will reach ours. And local community groups will be an important part of this effort.

Policy and Politics

Our immigration system is broken, and needs comprehensive reform. Comprehensive reform would address all aspects of our immigration system, not just focus on enforcement measures, for example, or on updating a single kind of visa. The necessary ingredients include:

• The chance for contributing immigrants already here to earn legalization and eventual citizenship.
• Sensible enforcement that focuses resources on fighting crime.
• A strengthened employment system that holds all employers accountable.
• A functioning immigration process that keeps American families together and establishes a future flow of workers and new citizens that is attuned to the nation’s economic and labor needs.

There have been nearly a century of immigration policy efforts in Congress, but change has been difficult. Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, and members of both parties in Congress, have come close—excruciatingly so, for advocates—to making comprehensive immigration reform a reality, but did not succeed.

President Bush was a strong advocate for comprehensive immigration reform and nearly managed to shepherd it into law in 2001 and again between 2005 and 2007. But in 2001, the Sept. 11 attacks halted momentum, and disagreements between the House and Senate were among the stumbling blocks in 2005 and 2006.

In 2007, after Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, President Bush again pressed for a reform bill that would have provided for tougher border security, toughened employer enforcement, a guest worker program, and a pathway to legalization for those who were already in the United States. That effort collapsed, however, after Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on a deal.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama pledged during his 2008 presidential campaign to pursue comprehensive immigration reform, but immigration occupied the back burner early in his presidency as his administration used Democratic majorities in both chambers to address the economic crisis and healthcare reform. In late 2010, an effort to provide a path to citizenship for young people brought to the United States as children fell just short when Senate Republicans and a handful of conservative Democrats filibustered the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

Faced with a Congress dominated by the Tea Party and a presidential opponent who touted a policy of “self-deportation,” the Obama administration announced a program in June 2012 that allows young people who would have qualified for relief under the DREAM Act to come forward, obtain work permits and live free from the fear of deportation. Hundreds of thousands of young people benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which is renewable every two years.

Obama won reelection with the help of very strong support from Hispanic, Asian, and other immigrant voters—demographics that continue to grow among the American electorate. In a post-election analysis, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus concluded that his party “must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.”

The stage was set for broad immigration reform in the 113th Congress. Bipartisan groups of Democrats and Republicans in each house worked to draft immigration bills—and in the Senate, a bipartisan bill passed 68-32 in June 2013. The bill featured increased border security, mandatory worker verification, new visa programs for workers across the spectrum, and an opportunity for people already in the U.S. to earn citizenship over time, among other provisions.

But party politics intervened in the House. A similar bipartisan group broke up without releasing a bill, leaders ruled out taking up the Senate bill, and talk of even a piecemeal approach triggered strong pushback from far-right Republicans. A series of enforcement bills that emerged from committees were never brought up for votes, and momentum died over the summer of 2014, thanks in part to two circumstances: a far-right primary challenger handed House Minority Leader Eric Cantor a surprise primary defeat, and an increase in the number of unaccompanied children from Central America crossing the U.S.’s southern border changed the focus of the debate.

In the meantime, President Obama was considering executive action that would expand on his administration’s deferred action measure in 2012. He delayed taking action twice, first to give the legislative process more time and then during midterm campaign season. But with no movement from Congress by late in the year, and following the November election that put Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, he announced executive actions.

The executive action announcement launched a new round of political gamesmanship in which the House of Representatives held hostage a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security unless it included amendments that would roll back not only the new executive action, but the 2012 deferred action program (the showdown ended in April with a favorable vote, but not consensus on the issue). And less than a few days before an expanded rollout of new deferred action programs included in the executive action were to begin, 25 states, including Texas, issued preliminary injunctions to block implementation of those programs.

In their efforts to gain the political upper hand, both parties risk forgetting what the conversation should really be about: people.

An Evolving Coalition on Immigration

Given immigration policy’s long and often difficult history and the highly politicized debate underway right now, what gives us hope for real immigration reform—even in the relatively near future?

More than you might think.

For one, changing politics and economic data around immigration have created unusual coalitions advocating for better immigration policy. These coalitions have emerged and strengthened since 2010.

The DREAM Act, which came very close to passing in 2010, was not the end but the beginning of an outspoken advocacy movement among “Dreamers”—young people whom the law would help—and their allies. Their compelling stories about growing up fully American in every way except official immigration status changed the tone of the debate. And their effective advocacy helped push the Obama administration to announce Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012.

Dreamers were, and are, a powerful new voice among immigrant advocates, and increasing support from unions and other traditional allies were another important component of the momentum immigration reform has gained. But another key push came from allies who previously might have raised an eyebrow: faith leaders, law enforcement, and business leaders across the political spectrum.

Between 2010 and 2012, leaders from these groups joined together to form a new consensus on the importance of immigrants and immigration to America. Their respectful dialogue rose above the political fray, and the result was a clear message: If you hold a bible, wear a badge, or own a business, you want a new immigration process that moves America forward and replaces our broken system. The consensus gave rise to Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration Reform, a network of leaders that highlights the need and support for broad immigration reform that simultaneously promotes human dignity, family unity, safety, a stronger economy, and respect for the rule of law.

Bibles, Badges and Business leaders have changed the conversation. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” whose broad immigration reform bill passed the Senate in June 2013, cited the support of evangelical Christians back home. When the House has considered measures that would erode community trust in law enforcement, local sheriffs and police chiefs have spoken out against the measures. And Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, also a Republican, voted for the Senate bill and continues to support business-focused reform measures.

As the debate around immigrants, immigration, and reform becomes more politicized in Washington, these leaders are coming together to reframe the conversation.

Providing Opportunities, Skills and Status for New Americans

America’s changing demographics change the conversation about immigrants and about immigration policy. Presidential and Senate candidates recognize that immigrant and minority voters are key to their success at the polls. But the changes are more than just political. Our more diverse communities represent untapped potential for business, entrepreneurship, and religious and civic institutions, among others. On a local level, a constructive conversation about immigration increasingly means focusing on helping new Americans succeed so that we can all succeed.

Local governments, businesses, churches, schools, and neighborhoods all have contributions to make to this conversation.

How can you help provide opportunities and skills to new Americans and their families? Do businesses or nonprofit organizations in your city have the capacity to help immigrants in the workforce develop their skills, or perhaps even help eligible legal immigrants become citizens? Are educational institutions offering English-language instruction or other programs that recognize and encourage the contributions of immigrants?

All of these components make for more welcoming communities, and a more welcoming and successful America. Include a rededication to immigration reform that moves our communities forward and you have a recipe for changing the politics and trajectory of the immigration policy debate in Washington, too.

This new conversation in our communities will help Republicans and Democrats alike recognize the opportunity to present a clear and positive vision on immigration in America. Politically, Republicans have an opportunity ahead of the 2016 election to change their tone on immigration and take credit for passing legislation that makes executive action moot. But at minimum, focusing on how immigrants and immigration help America succeed will refocus the debate in a way that respects people who are trying to provide for their families and contributing to our communities.

A majority of Americans, no matter their political party, recognize that we need a new immigration process that helps people participate fully, not live in fear. We need to acknowledge that if you work hard, you deserve the opportunity for success in America—no matter where you were born.

Most immediately, local organizations can encourage young people eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to apply, and also help educate and prepare members of your community who will be eligible for expanded deferred action once it works its way through the courts. Consider the needs of immigrants in your community, help them integrate and contribute fully, and encourage citizenship. Learn more about the policy debate and support immigration reform that respects individuals and families, builds our economy, makes us safer, and strengthens the rule of law.

In the end, helping immigrants succeed will help our communities and our country thrive. And not even politicians will be able to argue about that.

Ali Noorani is executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

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