The Debate Right, Left And Center
WASHINGTON, D.C.--I'm a participant in the nation's controversial
immigration policy debate. I work in Washington, D.C., for a pro-immigrant
organization trying to convince lawmakers to enact bipartisan, comprehensive
We work with allies from across the nation and the political spectrum. We're
seeking federal legislation that will replace the dysfunctional status quo
with a regulatory regime that brings immigrants and immigration out of the
shadows and under the rule of law.
Having been in this debate for a quarter of a century, I'm familiar with its
fury and crosscurrents. The debate isn't for the thin of skin. It tends to
generate more heat than light. And as they say, if you can't take the
But recently, our efforts have come under especially heavy fire.
Interestingly, the criticism comes from both the political right and the
Stick up for immigrants and some anti-immigrant hardliner will accuse you of
aiding and abetting terrorism. Call for targeted enforcement and some
activist will accuse you of aiding and abetting the deaths of migrants in
Support an earned path to citizenship for the majority of the nation's
undocumented immigrants and some nativist will accuse you of selling out the
Tolerate some restrictions on the same legalization program and some
activist will accuse you of supporting an apartheid-like scheme destined to
rip families apart.
Support expanded legal channels for workers to enter on long-term temporary
visas with robust labor protections and an eventual path to citizenship, and
you better get ready to duck, because both extremes are loaded for bear: the
hard right will accuse you of being an open-borders nut case and the hard
left will accuse you of supporting a modern-day slave trade.
So, am I complaining? No. The overheated resistance is actually a sign of
progress. It underlines how the cause of balanced and bipartisan
comprehensive reform is beginning to marginalize the hotheads on both
extremes in favor of a solution that can work and pass.
For most of the past two decades, this country's debate over immigration has
been polarized by hardliners shouting past each other. The arguments may be
sophisticated, but the underlying themes remain the same: Let 'em all in!
Keep 'em all out! But something new is happening. A new center of political
gravity is emerging.
This new center says let's fix our broken immigration system in our
lifetime; let's walk and chew gum at the same time; let's combine carrots
and sticks in a way that works; let's expand the path to citizenship for
those seeking the American Dream, while expanding enforcement mechanisms
that make the process safe, legal and orderly; let's build a regulatory
regime that delivers the labor and political rights wanted by immigrants and
delivers the government's control of the process wanted by the American
This new approach is championed by the likes of Senators Ted Kennedy
(D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). They've been joined by many others from
Just recently, the Senate passed an imperfect but unprecedented rough draft
of comprehensive immigration reform by a margin of 62-36. The majority of
those backing the measure were Democrats, but they were joined with a brave
and hearty band of Republican reformers. Their collective determination to
buck partisan politics for a stab at a pragmatic solution was inspiring.
The response? You guessed it.
The hard right is howling like stuck pigs, claiming the Senate bill is an
"amnesty that rewards lawbreakers." They cite distorted studies and conjure
up images of millions of unassimilable new immigrants determined to overrun
the nation. They favor the punitive enforcement-only bill authored by James
Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and enacted mostly along party lines in the House
last December (yes, the bill that brought millions of immigrants and their
allies into the streets this past spring).
Meanwhile, some on the hard left have turned their fire from the House bill
onto the Senate bill, making the incredible claim that the Senate package
isn't much better than the House bill. Apparently, legalizing millions over
the next six to eight years, reuniting millions of family members in the
next six years, providing millions of new permanent visas for workers, and
giving farm workers and high school students the chance to earn citizenship
isn't much better than a House bill that makes felons out of undocumented
immigrants and anyone who assists them.
No matter. The country is finally paying attention, and they get what the
hardliners don't. Solving the immigration riddle is going to require both
enforcement and legalization. Public opinion polls consistently show that
the American people are no longer falling for the old "either/or" debate.
Their pragmatism is shining through. They want a "both/and" approach to
Unfortunately, the American people, desperate for a fix that works and the
millions of immigrant workers and families desperate for a path to
citizenship, are unlikely to get what they want. At least not this year.
Leaders of the House seem more interested in beating up on immigrants in the
run up to the November mid-term elections. Instead of negotiating with their
Senate colleagues on a bill, they're holding "field hearings" around the
country to drum up opposition to the Senate bill. They hope that anger at
illegal immigration will move their hardcore "base" voters to turn out to
vote, which will help them keep the majority in the House. They're simply
not interested in solving the problem in a balanced, or even in an
unbalanced, fashion. They want an issue, not an accomplishment.
Unless something dramatic turns the tide, the House will run out the clock,
the debate will continue to be a political football, and the hardliners will
continue their efforts to polarize it.
The new center may not prevail this year -- it's still too weak while the
old polarization is still too strong. But here's a prediction: the
correlation of strength will shift. And when it does, our nation's lawmakers
will finally change our immigration laws in ways that both respect the
contributions of immigrants and respect the rule of law.
For the sake of our nation and its hardworking immigrant families, may that
day come soon.
This article originally appeared on New American Media on July 20, 2006
About The Author
Frank Sharry is the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum in Washington, DC.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.
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