EDITOR'S NOTE

Reforming Hearts and Minds

It’s time to get past the rhetoric on immigration

Posted

First, it was health care. Then, it was the election. Or gun control. Or the fiscal cliff. For the last four years, despite many promises, Washington keeps getting sidetracked when it comes to immigration reform.

And, really, it goes back much further than four years. We didn’t find ourselves with a woefully inadequate immigration system overnight.

Now, everyone is ready to talk about immigration again. And this time they’re serious. Really.

“I’ve said that fixing our broken immigration system is a top priority,” President Barack Obama said in an interview on “Meet the Press” Dec. 30. “I think we have talked about it long enough. We know how we can fix it. We can do it in a comprehensive way that the American people support.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also have said it will be a priority for 2013.

After Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote, compared to Mitt Romney’s 27 percent, in the November election, rhetoric-wielding Republicans might be ready to soften their approach. Even if most Republicans haven’t entirely changed their minds, they have to be aware of the numbers: Exit polls revealed that 10 percent of the 2012 electorate was Hispanic, hitting double digits for the first time.

As reported on the Huffington Post, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a long-time advocate for a humane approach to immigration reform, said last week, “It’s really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on health care, if they think you want to deport their grandmother.” As the Cuban-American senator’s profile rises around speculation of a 2016 presidential bid, his voice will likely be the one to follow for the GOP.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who could also run in 2016, has advocated for immigration reform and a dial-down on the rhetoric. But overall, the Republican Party’s tone on immigration remains out of whack, with some of the most vocal — Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) — deemed by many to be extreme and offensive. Romney attacked fellow candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry for signing a bill to give some young undocumented immigrants in-state tuition. Romney also said undocumented immigration could be solved by “self-deportation.”

To avoid a recalcitrant Congress, the president has used executive orders targeted to reform immigration. Last year, Obama’s directive allowed certain people younger than 30 who came to the United States before the age of 16 to apply for a two-year deferral of deportation. It could be seen as a step toward the long-languishing (since 2001) DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) proposed to provide an opportunity for residency to millions of immigrant children who graduated from U.S. high schools.

On Jan. 2, the Obama Administration announced a directive allowing illegal immigrants who can demonstrate that their time away from American immediate family members would create “extreme hardship” to apply for visas without leaving the United States. Under the new rules, they would only have to leave the country briefly to pick up their visas in their native countries. The arcane law meant that many families were separated for up to a decade from immigrant spouses, children or parents who were applying for the legal documents known as green cards. The Los Angeles Times reported the administration might expand the changes to include relatives of lawful permanent residents.

This is another important step in dealing with the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States. Many of them are contributing members of society who would contribute more if there were a better path to legalizing their status. Many come here as children of parents fighting for a better life for their families. Some escape deplorable conditions in their home countries. Others are victims of human trafficking.

Some enter the country illegally. Others overstay their original visas. It’s not practical, or even desirable, to simply kick all of these people out of the United States. Many are plugged into our economy and perform a wide variety of jobs. Some came to attend college, attaining advanced degrees they hoped to put to use at a job in the U.S. Those are skills we should want to retain.

Obama has made a lot of promises about immigration reform, most of which he has not yet kept. It seems a large majority of the Latino population believed Obama was a better bet than Romney to accomplish their goals. But they haven’t had much proof to bolster their beliefs.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a record 410,000 people in the last fiscal year, compared with 397,000 the prior year. A record 1.59 million people were deported during the last four fiscal years. ICE reported that 55 percent of those removed were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors. The American Civil Liberties Union countered that “almost half” of those deported had no criminal records.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is one of two Florida agencies that have immigration enforcement agreements with the federal government. If you are arrested in Jacksonville, you will be asked two citizenship questions: Where were you born? Of what country are you a citizen?

The ACLU says this practice causes racial profiling and fear and mistrust of police among immigrants. On Dec. 21, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security decided to end local agency programs that use task-force tactics in the field to seek out aliens for deportation.

Read the news story on page 7 about one attorney’s fight to keep alive the only program that provides no-cost legal services for immigrants, many of whom have committed no crimes, at the Baker County jail, the regional facility where they are detained long term.

We need a comprehensive solution with a guest-worker program for future immigrants and a path for illegal immigrants already living here to legalize their status over time. Some Republicans will fight one or both of those reforms, so Boehner will need to be persuasive.

The Huffington Post reported that because Boehner brought the fiscal cliff to the floor without majority support, breaking the so-called “Hastert Rule,” a Democratic aide had hope for the future of immigration reform in a Republican-controlled House. “He already did it with this fiscal issue, so I would not be surprised if, when it came down to it, he puts up a bill that he just allows to go through with a combination of Democratic and Republican votes, without worrying about a majority of the majority.”

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