Reforming Immigration Reform

With a divided Congress that can’t agree on immigration reform, advocates are looking to the White House and the state house. The nation’s Latino groups are urging President Obama---whose administration has set records for deportations---to stop them, especially those of undocumented immigrant students.

“The president said that his administration is focused on dangerous criminal elements that have committed serious felonies. That’s who he says he’s out to get. But the fact is more than 400,000 were deported last year and the majority of them…are not criminals,” said Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois. He was the first Latino lawmaker in Congress to endorse Obama for president. But now Gutierrez says he may not campaign for the president next year because he’s frustrated how the president has handled immigration policy. “He has a problem with the Latino immigrant community,” Gutierrez said. “Obama stated categorically that the Federal government shouldn’t rip children from their mothers’ arms and that’s what’s happening.”

Some Latino advocates are less critical. They were encouraged by an April White House meeting to try and jumpstart congressional efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform, or in the very least, legislation called the Dream Act that would help undocumented students. “What Obama is doing is making immigration a priority, and that’s good,” said Clarissa Martinez, head of the National Council of La Raza’s (NCLR) immigration campaigns.

The president followed up with that White House meeting with a speech on the need for immigration reform in El Paso. Standing near the U.S.-Mexico border, Obama described what he called his administration’s tough enforcement policy and said it’s now time to find other solutions to the issue of illegal immigration.

“We need to provide farms a legal way to hire the workers they rely on, and a path for those workers to earn legal status,” he said.

“When an issue is this complex and raises such strong feelings, it’s easier for politicians to defer the problem until after the next election. And there’s always a next election. So we’ve seen a lot blame and politics and ugly rhetoric. We’ve seen good faith efforts---from leaders of both parties---fall prey to the usual Washington games.”

For 10 years, NCLR and other groups have tried to win approval of the Dream Act, which would provide conditional residency to undocumented students who have graduated from a U.S. high school with good grades and have good moral character. Besides blocking deportations of these students, the Dream Act would allow them to pay in-state tuition and get a job. But the Dream Act faltered in the last Congress and doesn’t stand a chance now that the House is controlled by Republicans who oppose it.

So certain Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have asked the president to defer the deportation of students who would be helped by the Dream Act. But the president prefers to say it’s up to Congress, not him, to change immigration policy. That frustrates advocates who say Obama can stop certain deportations and even give a blanket amnesty to undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for a long time.

Last year, the Department of Homeland Security drafted a memo that said the president had that authority to make those changes the nation’s immigration policy. But most Republicans are taking a hard line on immigration. There’s strong opposition to the idea that the White House slow deportations, even among GOP lawmakers like Iowa Senator Charles Grassley who once supported the Dream Act. “I’m just appalled that members of this body think an executive order to grant amnesty behind our backs is not an assault on the democratic process,” Grassley said.

With no action from Washington, states are looking to make their own immigration policy. Maryland has approved its version of the Dream Act and a few other state including Colorado, are trying to do so too. But it’s Utah that provoked the most controversy with its new package of immigration laws. They would crack down on undocumented immigrants---somewhat like Arizona’s attempt last year---but also establish a guest worker program. Some praise Utah for its willingness to seek a solution when Congress won’t. But the Utah law has been assailed as unconstitutional by immigration advocates like the NCLR and immigration hardliners like Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas, the Republican head of the House Judiciary Committee.

In rare agreement, both sides of the immigration debate say Utah has usurped the federal government’s authority on immigration. So the Utah laws may suffer the same fate as Arizona’s – nullified, at least in part ,by the courts. There are other states like Utah, seeking to “copycat” what Arizona did. But Martinez of NCLR said only a few will push ahead. “Of the 31 states that have considered it, 22 have said ‘no thanks,’” she said. States continuing to consider Arizona-like proposals include Georgia, Florida and Indiana.

In the end, however, it’s Washington that bears the responsibility for immigration reform. And the nation’s capital seems hopelessly polarized. But increasing awareness of the political importance of a growing Hispanic electorate could change that. Some Republicans say that won’t be able to win the White House if their tough stance on immigration continues to turn off Latinos. And Obama isn’t likely to reach Hispanic voters in 2012 without doing something meaningful about immigration.

By Ana Radelat