Dust Off Those Old Immigration Reform Deals? Not So Fast

by Seth Freed Wessler , 2012-11-15

Just 48 hours after the election was called and exit polls had fully confirmed that Romney pulled fewer Latino votes than the Republican candidate in any recent election, GOP congressional leaders, tails between their legs, began promising a new push for immigration law reform. But as the once-stalled reform process lurches back into action, familiar and vexing questions are quickly emerging: What qualifies as “reform,” for whom and at what price?

The votes weren’t even fully counted when Republican leaders signaled they were ready to return to the negotiating table. On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner said he would support changing immigration laws. “This issue has been around far too long,” he told ABC’s Diane Sawyer. And on Sunday, the promises began to take some form when Sen. Lindsay Graham, the South Carolina Republican who two years ago fled all reform efforts in protest of Obamacare, announced a reinvigorated bipartisan effort.

In a coordinated blitz, Graham and New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer appeared on separate morning shows. Graham said on CBS’ “Face The Nation” that he would sit down with Democrats to craft a plan for undocumented immigrants to “come out of the shadows, get biometrically identified, start paying taxes, pay a fine for the law they broke.”

Two years ago, Graham joined Schumer, who’d just taken the immigration reform reigns from Ted Kennedy, to draft a blueprint for change. President Obama said their plan “should be the basis for moving forward.” And until Graham jumped ship, it was on its way. Now, the two senators are trying to take the country back to that March 2010 moment.

But as in 2010, both senators said on Sunday their plans would be heavy on enforcement and avoid anything that sounds like amnesty. They would include tougher border enforcement; a new, tighter identification system for all workers; a limited number of visas for a select group of new immigrants and a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants if they learn English and pass a background check.

Many immigration reform advocates were not impressed.

“The paradigm has shifted and we can do better,” said Kika Matos, the immigrant rights director for the Center for Community Change, which coordinates FIRM, a national coalition of state immigrant advocacy groups. “Dusting off a plan that is years old isn’t going to cut it.”

Where to Begin?

Pollsters and election watchers say there’s no doubt that the Republicans’ rightward move on immigration helped propel the steady decline of their Latino support. The Romney campaign drew votes from an historically low proportion of Latinos, a demographic that ranks immigration among the top issues of concern. Only 27 percent of Latino voters supported Romney on Tuesday, according to exit polls, down from the 31 percent who supported John McCain in 2008 and 44 percent who voted for George W. Bush in 2004.

Graham acknowledged on Sunday that the GOP’s anti-immigrant tone “has built a wall between the Republican Party and Hispanic community.”

“This is an odd formula for a party to adopt,” he said of the GOP’s strongly anti-immigrant stance. “The fastest growing demographic in the country, and we’re losing votes every election. It’s one thing to shoot yourself in the foot, just don’t reload the gun.”

But many immigrant rights advocates say that a plan that looks like the one Schumer and Graham proposed in 2010 is too close to a loaded gun to be acceptable.

The 2010 Graham-Schumer plan was the result of protracted bipartisan wrangling that pulled many Democrats to the right. Critics say the bill overemphasized deportation and border enforcement and didn’t do enough to open pathways for new immigrants to lawfully come to the country.

Ultimately, despite all the Democrats’ concessions, the bipartisan bill still failed to become law. But in the last two years, the enforcement part of the bill came true—not through hard cross-aisle agreement, but because Obama’s Department of Homeland Security rapidly expanded enforcement operations in local jails and deployed more border patrol agents than any previous administration. The result? Record numbers of non-citizens deported.

As a result, in the opening days of a renewed conversation of about immigration reform, many advocates say they’re unlikely to fall in line with a bipartisan plan that slow down the Obama pace of deportations.

“While Republicans do their soul searching,” said Pablo Alvarado, the director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, “we’ll be pushing for solutions for all our community. The Schumer-Graham plan is unacceptable; we’re still fighting Obama’s deportations.”

Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program brought hundreds of thousands of young people, so-called DREAMers, out of the shadows. But while polls showed the administrative program gave Obama a boost, young undocumented activists say that they’re not content with a deportation deferral alone, nor with any system that deports their parents.

“By having this relief and having access to greater resources we can begin to push harder for relief for the entire community,” said Lorella Praeli, advocacy director of the group United We Dream, a coalition of young undocumented immigrants. “This fight for DREAMers in our community has never been about ourselves…. It’s been about our families.”

United We Dream plans to release its own blueprint for immigration reform soon and will be bringing their demands to whomever will listen in Washington.

Schumer said on Sunday, “The Republican Party has learned that being anti-immigrant doesn’t work for them.” But in the face of a growing Latino electorate that’s claiming the election results as its own, the same old compromises from Democrats may not be enough either.

This piece first appeared in ColorLines.com