Democrats Should Start Talking About Comprehensive Immigration Reform

In order to get some perspective on the issue of immigration reform, a brief reminder about some recent history might be helpful.

First of all, when it comes to the Dream Act, it is important to remember that some form of that legislation has been introduced on a bipartisan basis going back to 2001, when Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) teamed up with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). From 2009 through 2011, versions of the Dream Act were introduced four times, passing either the House or the Senate—but never both. Finally in 2012, President Obama issued his DACA executive order, granting deferred action to Dreamers.

Following their loss in the 2012 presidential election, the Republicans completed an autopsy and one of the main recommendations was to get on board with immigration reform.

“We are not a policy committee, but among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, must be to embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” the report read. “If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”

As a result, the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” was formed in the Senate. They developed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, which passed the Senate 68/32. As the title suggests, it was a compromise proposal that included demands from both Republicans and Democrats.

Millions of immigrants living illegally in the United States could earn a chance at citizenship under a sweeping Senate proposal to be released Tuesday that would represent the most ambitious overhaul of the nation’s immigration system in three decades.

The highly anticipated proposal from an eight-member bipartisan group also aims to stem the flow of undocumented immigrants into the country by creating tens of thousands of new visas for foreign workers in low-skilled jobs, according to a 17-page summary of the bill obtained by The Washington Post.

In addition, billions of dollars would be invested in new border-control measures, including surveillance drones, security fencing and 3,500 additional federal agents charged with apprehending people attempting to enter illegally from Mexico.

The pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants was rigorous.

13-year path to citizenship: After DHS sets its enforcement goals, undocumented immigrants who have been here since before December 31, 2011 can apply for registered provisional immigrant status. If they pass the background check and pay a fine ($500 up front), this status allows them to work lawfully in the U.S. After 10 years, those with provisional status are eligible for permanent status. Three years later, they can finally apply for citizenship. Over the course of the 10-year period undocumented immigrants will pay $2,000 in fines plus taxes, and must demonstrate knowledge of civics and English.

However, what I have often called the Lunatic Caucus in the House made sure that Speaker John Boehner never brought that bill up for a vote, knowing that it would pass with bipartisan support. When it became clear that their attempts would be successful in blocking comprehensive immigration reform, President Obama signed DAPA, granting deferred action to parents of children who were citizens or lawful permanent residents. A deadlock on the Supreme Court left in place a lower court’s preliminary injunction blocking that program.

That brings us to the Trump administration. On September 5, 2017, they announced a decision to rescind DACA in six months. That issue is currently working its way through the courts. With claims of wanting to protect DACA recipients, the president attempted to negotiate a legislative fix. However, he wasn’t interested in the kinds of bipartisan negotiations that resulted in the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill. Instead, Trump made demands about funding for his border wall, drastic changes to our legal immigration system and changes in law that would allow the administration to deport and detain more migrants.

What is important to note is that instead of a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants, the field had narrowed to Dreamers. In addition, rather than common-sense border security measures, the demands were about a useless and expensive wall combined with xenophobic changes to our immigration system. In other words, the entire conversation had lurched to the right.

That is why it is important for Democrats to refocus their demands back to comprehensive immigration reform. It is clear that a bill like the one that passed the Senate in 2013 would not be signed as long as Donald Trump is president. But the issues that prompted the need for such legislation haven’t gone away, they’ve actually escalated as the Trump administration seeks to “deport ’em all.” Similarly, if Republicans were worried about their party’s appeal shrinking to its core constituencies in 2012, that is even more true in 2018.

What has changed since 2013 is the racist rhetoric and policies on immigration coming from this White House and the way the Republican Party has been captured by anti-immigrant forces. None of that means that Democrats should cede their ground on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform. Rather than simply respond to Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric and policies, it is time to go on offense and propose a way to actually solve the problem.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.