The calls for a path to legal residency for millions of people residing in the United States without formal documents are growing louder. Four immigrant students started off the new decade by setting off for Washington DC from Miami to draw attention to the nation’s undocumented population.
But those who don’t personally risk deportation are also making the case that conditional legalization makes economic and social sense for the United States. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently said that comprehensive immigration reform, with a path to legalization, is of national interest.
Under current immigration policy, "We're committing what I call national suicide," Bloomberg said December 27 on NBC's Meet the Press. "In fact, we do the stupidest thing, we give them education and then don't give them green cards."
Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) introduced legislation on December 15 that included a provision for earned legalization, along with tougher border enforcement and a plan to overhaul the nation’s detention centers. To receive a six-year visa that would then turn into a green card, undocumented immigrants would have to study English, pay a $500 fine, register with the federal government, and pass background checks.
The Gutierrez bill was just the beginning of what promises to be a long debate, but once the House and Senate reconcile their differences on health care legislation, immigration will likely be next on the Senate’s domestic agenda.
Reform is the only reasonable approach to address the status of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants who are living, working and paying taxes in communities across the United States. “You can’t send people home who are already home,” said David R. Ayón, senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, at a Columbia University panel discussion last month on immigration reform.
The Obama administration has advocated a three-pronged approach to immigration reform. Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has outlined a plan “that includes a commitment to serious and effective enforcement, improved legal flows for families and workers, and a firm but fair way to deal with those who are already here.”
A balance of these three elements must indeed be struck, but it may be up to advocates to ensure a legalization provision is not dropped from future legislation.
Citing the late Senator Ted Kennedy while speaking at Columbia University, Marc Rosenblum, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said comprehensive immigration reform is “the civil rights issue of our time,” then added, “but it hasn’t become the civil rights movement of our time.”
Many of the nation’s mayors, including Bloomberg, see the local level effects of flawed national policies. At the January 1 swearing-in ceremony for his third term, the New York Mayor pledged to “assemble a bipartisan coalition to support President Obama's call for comprehensive immigration reform that honors our history, upholds our values, and promotes our economy.” Perhaps he can do something similar for immigration reform as was done for handguns. In 2008, Bloomberg was instrumental in organizing 500 city leaders who lobbied congress for tougher restrictions.
The political window for immigration reform is short, but legalization cannot continue to be delayed. Our society, economy and the livelihoods of millions depend on it.
*Caroline Stauffer is a guest blogger for americasquarterly.org. She is a Masters student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and is currently interning at Americas Quarterly.