Friday, June 4, 2010

Bipartisan Dreams of Immigration Reform

Yesterday I attended an all-day meeting as a commissioner with the Oregon Commission on Hispanic Affairs, a legislative-created organization seeking equality for Oregon Latino/as. Our guests included a teleconference with a Washington D.C. political strategist who discussed the dismal prospects for comprehensive immigration reform in the coming months unless the Gulf oil leak subsides. She stressed the need for bipartisan support for any reform to move forward. I remarked that if I had a t-shirt it would read “We had bipartisan support for comprehensive reform with the Kennedy/McCain coalition and all we got was a lousy Secure Fence Act.” I then queried whether Latino/as instead should pursue piecemeal reform. In other words, chase the DREAM Act and the AgJobs Act to at least give some relief to undocumented farm workers and college students, or those who dream of college. The strategist’s response was pragmatic and persuasive—having garnered bipartisan support in the past these alluring pieces might successfully pass, leaving the vegetable on the plate of the more challenging question of the status of millions of undocumented immigrants. As the argument goes, the only incentive to get what Latino/a families deserve and want is to hold hostage the issues more appealing to the conservative base—helping farmers save their crops with a ready supply of cheap labor, and helping keep the most educated young immigrants in our country.

But I am pessimistic about the prospects for a comprehensive package passing anytime soon. As reform drags on through the years, reform proposals become even more enforcement-oriented and the most challenging piece Latino/as desire—a pathway to citizenship, becomes more tortuous. I wonder if, a bit like game theory, by choosing this option we may end up with the worst case scenario—a country that increasingly fractures as Arizona did and where public opinion turns even more against any prospect of citizenship for undocumented immigrants under the flawed reasoning this somehow rewards unlawful behavior. Both the DREAM and the AgJobs Act eventually would fall victim. We would be left with piecemeal enforcement legislation of the Secure Fence variety at the federal level, while states in turn would respond to the futility of such enforcement-only models by following Arizona’s lead of mean-spirited local laws. While the country fractured, farm laborers supplying our food and undocumented Latino/a youth dreaming an American dream would fall victim to the aspiration of a bipartisan comprehensive strategy to supposedly fix immigration for the long-term.

Piecemeal reform may be less than desirable and less than what Latino/a immigrants and this country deserve, but this draconian alternative awaits.

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