Luis Gutierrez is a Democratic House member from Illinois and chair of the Hispanic Caucus’s immigration task force.
Many see Arizona’s immigration law as a sign that voters want a no-holds-barred crackdown on illegal immigrants. But while much has been made of the law’s popularity in the polls, that same polling shows that those who support the Arizona law also support a comprehensive federal immigration solution.
Across the nation, there is tremendous frustration stemming from the perception that, at the federal level, no one seems to be minding the store. Congress and the White House do not seem to be setting, and enforcing, a clear set of rules that immigrants, employers, and everyone else are following. Few people know that deportations are up, illegal immigration is down, and the border is as safe as it has ever been. The issue has been polarized and politicized to a standstill, opening the door to thousands of state and local immigration initiatives, with Arizona’s law just the latest example. I understand the frustration provoked by our broken immigration system. But 50 state immigration policies are just a recipe for more chaos.
The tragedy is that the gridlock is avoidable. Democrats and Republicans agree on most of a unified, politically viable, and workable immigration reform package. Both parties agree that border security is a key part of any strategy. They would support boots on the ground and more effective management of our ports of entry to allow for legitimate commerce. Both parties also agree that we need a foolproof identification system that holds employers accountable and ends unauthorized work. This would ensure that individuals’ identities are more secure, that documents cannot be easily forged, and that businesses comply with the letter of our law. And we also agree that we need some level of legal immigration. Legal immigrants have been an engine of economic growth, innovation, and entrepreneurship on this continent for longer than we have been a nation. We need limits and a process, but we should not isolate the country.
The problem is that Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on what to do with the estimated 10.8 million illegal immigrants already here. Two-thirds have been here more than 10 years, and half live in families with children. There are about 4 million U.S. citizen children with at least one parent here illegally.
GOP lawmakers, by and large, think our immigration policies should drive out, deport, or otherwise get rid of those people and their families. That is at the heart of the Arizona law: make things so hostile that people deport themselves. Democrats, by and large, think that it is unrealistic to believe that a group larger than the population of Georgia will up and disappear.
We have a better plan. What Democrats propose, so far without a single Republican partner in Congress, is to make those immigrants register with the government, pay fines, pay taxes, learn English, and get in the system as a condition of staying.
We can keep spinning our wheels, making tough-sounding laws and calling anything that is not based on the mass exodus fantasy an “amnesty.” Or we can get together on a national basis and solve our immigration problem and heal the wounds of the immigration debate.
President Obama and the Justice Department are right to sue Arizona. Immigration policy should be set and enforced federally. That said, if the federal government is going to assert its pre-eminence, then Republicans and Democrats ought to find a way to work together to resolve their differences so that we restore law and order to our immigration system from the top down.