For a time, the Arizona law became a litmus-test issue in the national debate on immigration. You were either for it or against it. Like the debate itself, there seemed to be only two acceptable positions: Either you were for strictly enforcing immigration law and expelling all people who were in the country illegally, or you were in favor of letting them all stay. But it’s always been hard for me to see the issue in such black-and-white terms.
The anti-illegal-immigration side often loses perspective on the issue. But the pro-immigration crowd is also guilty of a maximalist approach. They ignore how illegal immigration unfairly affects immigrants who live here legally or are trying to immigrate here legally.
Every year my Senate office is approached by hundreds of people who request our assistance in expediting changes to their immigration status. They’ve followed the rules, paid the necessary fees, and patiently waited. It isn’t fair to them to permit millions of people to remain here who didn’t follow their example and apply for legal status. What message does that send to aspiring immigrants? It tells them they can immigrate to our country a lot quicker if they do so illegally.
Immigration advocates also allow themselves to be manipulated politically, which is something Cuban Americans have experienced in every election. Many candidates have campaigned in Miami’s Cuban communities promising to get tough on Castro. “Cuba Libre,” they shout, and then, after they’re elected, they ignore the issue. Today, it’s common for Democratic candidates to make all sorts of unrealistic promises about immigration reform to Latinos in the hope of mobilizing their support, and once in office they fail to keep them. President Obama was elected with a substantial majority of Latino support even though John McCain was one of the most outspoken immigration-reform advocates in the Republican party. The president promised he would pass comprehensive immigration reform in his first year in office. He didn’t. He didn’t even propose a comprehensive bill despite having Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Why? Because the solution is a lot more complicated and harder to put together than Democrats ever concede. Also, immigration is such an effective wedge issue against Republicans, some Democrats would just as soon keep it than make the necessary concessions that could lead to a bipartisan resolution of the issue.
Immigration-reform advocates have allowed Democrats to define the debate by insisting on support for specific bills that are unlikely to become law in their current form. For example, the vast majority of Americans and my Republican colleagues support the idea behind the DREAM Act, of making a distinction for and helping undocumented students who are high academic achievers — kids who were brought to the United States when they were very young and have grown up here. They’re ready to contribute to the country’s future. They’re not in compliance with immigration law, and, thus, not American citizens. But they are culturally as American as anyone else’s children. I’m sure we would find a way to keep them here if they could dunk a basketball. Why would we deport them if they’re valedictorian of their high school class?
But the bill is too broad as currently written. It could encourage chain migration by authorizing the relatives of students covered by the act to come here. A narrower bill would serve the same primary purpose of the DREAM Act, permitting undocumented students to remain in the country and go to school without exacerbating the illegal-immigration problem. The modifications necessary to assure its passage are not difficult to conceive or write into law. Nor should they trouble people on either side of the debate. But many activists refuse to concede that, and denounce any opposition to the current DREAM Act as anti-immigrant. And many Democrats happily urge them on. I don’t question that many of my Democratic colleagues are sincere in their desire to help undocumented students. So am I. But I’m not so naïve that I don’t recognize that some Democrats enjoy the advantage with Latino voters that Republican opposition to the bill gives them.
There is no doubt, either, that the rhetoric and tone used by some Republican opponents of immigration reform have hurt the party with Hispanics. George W. Bush strongly supported comprehensive reform, yet his support among Latinos lagged behind his Democratic opponents’. John McCain was the chief Republican sponsor of comprehensive reform legislation, but he lost Hispanics to President Obama by more than a two-to-one margin. Most Hispanics have long been Democratic voters. But there are growing numbers of them who might be open to supporting Republicans. Many of them are socially conservative, and worried about the influence on their children of our hyper-sexualized, secular pop culture. Republican support for traditional cultural values appeals to them. Many Hispanic voters who lawfully immigrated here did so for the economic opportunities available here and to escape the hardships caused by the government-dominated economies in their countries of origin. The Republican free-enterprise agenda attracts them as well. But it is very difficult to appeal to Hispanic voters for their support when they believe Republicans are trying to deport their loved ones.
I often feel as if I live in two worlds. I get angry when I hear stories of couples from wealthy families who come to Miami from overseas in the last weeks of a pregnancy, deliver their children at Jackson Memorial so their babies are born American citizens, and then leave the country and stick the American public with their hospital bills. I appreciate the frustration people have when they feel their country is being overwhelmed by illegal immigration.
On the other hand, when I hear some people accuse immigrants of destroying the American economy and culture and stealing jobs from American citizens, it stirs my anger, too. I can’t stand to hear immigrants described in terms more appropriate to a plague of locusts than human beings. And although I believe they are a small minority, I begin to wonder if some of the people who speak so disparagingly about immigrants would be just as worked up if most of them were coming from Canada.