In the verve and anarchy of the campaign season, immigration reform devolves into code words. The pronoun “they” and shorthand “illegals” serve a political end—to evoke fear, to scapegoat, to conjure a sense of disorder. Ironically, just floating the how-do-we-tackle-it question kindles anti-immigrant sentiment. In 2009, Georgetown University Professor Daniel Hopkins documented various communities experiencing demographic change which then convulse in an anti-immigrant slow burn as “salient national rhetoric politicizes that demographic change.” (Read: immigration is easy to demagogue.) Political speech, honed to the lesser, Xenophobic angels, diminishes us. Punting, the default position for the Obama Administration and Congress the past four years, is unacceptable.
Kick-em-out applause lines won’t ameliorate a crisis that threads together employment, public safety, health, agriculture, entitlement spending and social justice. It’s governing season. Comprehensive immigration reform is the only tenable solution.
In the other Washington, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security, is poised to team with South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, to advance a comprehensive approach. Presupposing a bill (with a nudge from an invigorated, newly re-elected president) is hammered out, few lawmakers will be 100 percent delighted. Legislating is the art of the possible, and immigration reform mirrors that reality. There will be a path to citizenship. There will be an employment requirement. There will be an English requirement. These reforms will be hitched to tighter enforcement (including documentation for agricultural workers) and border security.
With the absence of federal leadership, states hanker to fill the vacuum. Arizona’s infamous SB 1070, the Support our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, permits law enforcement to check the immigration status of detained or arrested individuals (unfortunate for those third-generation Latino-Americans conflated with undocumented Mexicans.) The U.S. Supreme Court struck down other more far-reaching components of the bill for violating the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, prohibiting states from preempting federal law (Washingtonians will learn more about the Supremacy Clause, presupposing adjudication of I-502, the state’s marijuana-legalization initiative.)
In Olympia—again, in the absence of federal reform—lawmakers may demand proof of citizenship as a requirement for drivers’ licenses. Other contentious issues center on the role of local law enforcement to police federal immigration laws (the federal “secure communities” programs) and the use of E-Verify, the Internet database that determines worker eligibility.
Washingtonians have witnessed the excesses of the immigration fight, from Border Patrol agents who conduct operations outside churches and schools frequented by immigrant families in Whatcom County, to politicians echoing the Know Nothing Party. It’s time to declare a truce, stop with the code words and move on comprehensive immigration reform now.