Earlier this week, I had the honor of traveling to Washington, D.C. with a group from Esperanza for America to lobby our elected officials in support of comprehensive immigration reform. Esperanza, comprised of over 12,000 Roman Catholic and Protestant Hispanic congregations and community non-profits, is the largest Hispanic faith-based organization in the USA. The group was composed, primarily, of Hispanic evangelical pastors from churches across the country, including key swing states such as Colorado and Florida. Obviously, our arguments in favor of comprehensive reform were framed from a conservative, faith-based, perspective.
The main focus of our trip was a press conference announcing Esperanza’s new grassroots campaign in support of comprehensive immigration reform. As Rev. Luis Cortes, Jr. explained, “It is time for Congress to catch up to the American people. We reject the notion that conservatives do not support immigration reform. By huge margins, Americans of every part of the country– swing district, conservative, and liberal districts– support the types of workable solutions under consideration today. The purpose of Esperanza for America is to make sure that Congress hears more from the 65% of Americans who consistently support reform then the strident fringe minority.”
We were joined at the press conference by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Grover Norquist (President of Americans for Tax Reform), Rev. Marcos Witt (a 4-time Grammy award winner), and Galen Carey (Director of Government Affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals).
Norquist, speaking with great emotion, evoked the importance of immigrants in American history: “Immigration is one of America’s strengths. Men and women who chose to come to America from another country are testifying to American exceptionalism and their faith in our future as a great nation.” Carey called “on the President and Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, to work together in a spirit of civility and the public interest to pass immigration reform now. Our system is broken and for too long our politicians have lacked the courage to come together for a meaningful solution. In the meantime, our families and communities are suffering.”
In addition to the press conference, we met with a number of Republican and Democratic officials, including Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) who serves as the Chairman of the Republican Study Committee (a group of conservative House Republicans) and Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), the Chairman of the House Republican Conference. In addition, we also met with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA).
It is important to note that Esperanza for America does not stand alone in calling for comprehensive reform. For example, the United States Council of Catholic Bishop’s launched a major campaign in support of reform earlier this year. Around the nation, a diverse range of voices are joining the call for reform and for a solution to our immigration problems.
A workable solution: the four pillars of comprehensive reform
Demonstrating real leadership, Senator’s Lindsey Graham and Charles Schumer have worked together to craft what is, in my opinion, the best proposal for comprehensive reform that we have ever seen.
Writing in The Washington Post today, they note that:
Our immigration system is badly broken. Although our borders have become far more secure in recent years, too many people seeking illegal entry get through. We have no way to track whether the millions who enter the United States on valid visas each year leave when they are supposed to. And employers are burdened by a complicated system for verifying workers’ immigration status…
The answer is simple: Americans overwhelmingly oppose illegal immigration and support legal immigration. Throughout our history, immigrants have contributed to making this country more vibrant and economically dynamic. Once it is clear that in 20 years our nation will not again confront the specter of another 11 million people coming here illegally, Americans will embrace more welcoming immigration policies.
Our plan has four pillars: requiring biometric Social Security cards to ensure that illegal workers cannot get jobs; fulfilling and strengthening our commitments on border security and interior enforcement; creating a process for admitting temporary workers; and implementing a tough but fair path to legalization for those already here.
The Senators recognize that an enforcement-only approach is not a workable solution. In addition, their proposal remedies a key defect in prior legislation, such as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, by creating new legal channels for immigration based on employment that will replace the current illegal flows and which will help our nation continue to benefit from the dynamic contributions immigrants make to our economy:
Ending illegal immigration, however, cannot be the sole objective of reform. Developing a rational legal immigration system is essential to ensuring America’s future economic prosperity.
Ensuring economic prosperity requires attracting the world’s best and brightest. Our legislation would award green cards to immigrants who receive a PhD or master’s degree in science, technology, engineering or math from a U.S. university. It makes no sense to educate the world’s future inventors and entrepreneurs and then force them to leave when they are able to contribute to our economy.
Our blueprint also creates a rational system for admitting lower-skilled workers. Our current system prohibits lower-skilled immigrants from coming here to earn money and then returning home. Our framework would facilitate this desired circular migration by allowing employers to hire immigrants if they can show they were unsuccessful in recruiting an American to fill an open position; allowing more lower-skilled immigrants to come here when our economy is creating jobs and fewer in a recession; and permitting workers who have succeeded in the workplace, and contributed to their communities over many years, the chance to earn a green card.
For the 11 million immigrants already in this country illegally, we would provide a tough but fair path forward. They would be required to admit they broke the law and to pay their debt to society by performing community service and paying fines and back taxes. These people would be required to pass background checks and be proficient in English before going to the back of the line of prospective immigrants to earn the opportunity to work toward lawful permanent residence.
The American people deserve more than empty rhetoric and impractical calls for mass deportation. We urge the public and our colleagues to join our bipartisan efforts in enacting these reforms.
(emphasis added). Thus, the Graham-Schumer plan focuses on border security, internal enforcement, avenues for future legal immigration flows, and our undocumented population (the four pillars) in tandem. It is not an amnesty; it is not a reward for law breakers. It is, rather, a practical solution to a vexing and complex issue.
I know there are some among us who are fixated on the notion that undocumented immigrants are law breakers who must be “punished.” Under this proposal, undocumented immigrants would admit to violating the law, and suffer certain consequences i.e. “punishment”- for it. How harsh a penalty do these men and women deserve? For the most part, they are a group composed of individuals who like many of my own ancestors have left their homes seeking opportunity and freedom; they have left, in many cases, lands marked by lawlessness, crushing poverty, and political oppression.
Jean Valjean’s crime in Les Miserables was the theft of a loaf of bread… what is an appropriate punishment for that crime? My purpose in posing that question is simply this: we must not forget that punishment and justice are not synonyms, for justice is not merely punitive in nature. At its heart, justice is driven by love and mercy, not retribution.
Does the future of the GOP hang in the balance?
I’ve written before about the negative effect the harsh rhetoric characteristic of the 2007 immigration debate had on Republican fortunes in some segments of the electorate in the 2008 election.
Xenophobic, nativist, or flatly racist remarks drive away both minority and educated voters. Now obviously, everyone who is opposed to reform is not xenophobic or nativist- many people, including some commentors on this blog, make a case against reform (or against earned legalization as a component of reform) without recourse to such language. However, on the whole, such voices of reason tend to be drowned out in the national debate by more heated, strident ones.
In our meetings in DC, I was heartened to see the extent to which Republican elected officials understood the negative long-term implications of a stance in opposition to reform. As one of them put it, the GOP needs to have the immigration issue “solved” before the 2012 presidential election. To paraphrase his remarks, the GOP will never win another Presidential election unless its ability to draw support from minority voters improves.
Folks, it really is as simple as that. Minorities account for about 48% of the births in the United States today. A political party that performs abysmally among them has no future. This fact is relevant in the present context because the majority of the immigrants coming to America, legally, or illegally, come from nations in Latin America and Asia, and because of the racial overtones of some of the language used by opponents of reform.
Now obviously, support for immigration reform is no magic talisman that will, by itself, translate into enhanced support for the GOP among minority or educated voters. However, it is a piece of the puzzle. The religious leaders I met in Washington uniformly spoke of the negative effect the language used in the 2007 debate had on members of their congregations. One spoke of a young man who was pro-life, pro traditional family values, and yet unable to bring himself to be a Republican because (and I’m paraphrasing here) he “could not be in a party that hates me.” According to Rev. Cortes and the other pastors, in the 2004 presidential election, George Bush captured about 70% of the Hispanic evangelical vote. In 2008, Obama captured about 60%. Much of the GOP’s future hinges on its ability to reverse that 30 point swing.
President Bush gave the GOP an opportunity in 2007 to lead the way on reform. Fate has given us another chance; if we are wise we will seize it.
An issue for all of us.
It would be a serious mistake to think of immigration reform as an issue of consequence merely to some members of the Hispanic community. On the contrary, immigration policy impacts all of us, both economically, and morally. Simply put, we are collectively responsible for a situation where, for many decades, our nation’s immigration laws have been, at best, indifferently enforced, and in which we have benefited economically from the fruits of undocumented immigrant labor. In a fundamental way, our policy towards immigrants speaks to our worldview as a people and to the future we project, or envision, for ourselves and our nation.
The tragedy of the common good
Environmentalists often speak of “the tragedy of the commons.” In brief, the phrase refers to the problem created by multiple individuals acting purely in their own immediate short-term self-interest in a way that runs counter to everyone’s collective long-term interests.
There is another tragedy of the commons playing out today- this one does not involve natural resources, but rather, the common good. Our inability to-date to craft and enact sensible immigration reform is merely one example of this sad fact.
With the legislation proposed by Senators Graham and Schumer, we have an opportunity to solve our longstanding immigration problems in a way that does justice to everyone involved. We have a chance to lay the foundation for a realistic, rational immigration policy. The proposed legislation does not involve an amnesty, or a reward for law-breakers; instead, it proposes a workable solution that is fair both to undocumented immigrants and to those who complied with our immigration laws. The legislation also takes the steps necessary to break the cycle of continued undocumented immigration through strengthening the border, the creation of new avenues for employment-based immigration, and through measures, such as biometric social security cards, that will simplify internal enforcement.
All that is needed is one more Republican Senator with the courage to serve the common good and add his or her name to this legislation. Any Senator considering this should remember that, in the long run, history does not look kindly on the Know-Nothings, on the other nativists that have from time to time arisen in American history during prior immigration panics. Past fears about the impact of Irish, German, Italian, or Jewish immigration on our national character are virtually incomprehensible to us today.
America has not been a nation cursed with blood-and-soil nationalism; on the contrary, we have long been a beacon to those fleeing oppression and tyranny, to those seeking opportunity and a better life. We lose the very essence of what is best in ourselves the moment that beacon dims.
Love demands candor; sometimes, the truth must be plainly spoken. Underpinning some (but by no means all) of the opposition to immigration reform is a race-based fear about the future ethnic composition of America.
It is true that the face of America is changing, but this is not a reason to be afraid. We have never been a people united by blood. What unites us is, instead, a shared commitment to liberty and freedom, and to the fundamental dignity of the human person. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”- whomever has those words burned in fire on their heart is my brother, no matter what their race, religion, or national origin might be. The founding principles of our nation, if true, are universal in their applicability to humanity because we are all made in the image of the same God.
Today, we have a unique opportunity to “solve” our longstanding immigration problem in a fashion that would be supported by a majority of Americans. Conservative voices are speaking out in support of comprehensive reform. The four pillars of the plan proposed by Senators Graham and Schumer offer the best possible solution to our immigration problem.
As this debate commences, it is my earnest hope and prayer that another Republican will join Lindsey Graham as a sponsor for this legislation, and that, collectively, we will all remember…. “there is no fear in love.” (1 John 4:18)