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Debate Raises the Key Immigration Question – What to Do About America’s 11 Million Undocumented Immigrants?

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Obama Says Most Get to Stay; Romney Says Most Have to Leave

First, the public owes Lorraine Osario, the person who asked the immigration question at last night’s debate, many thanks.  She asked the central question regarding our nation’s immigration policy: “what do you plan on doing with immigrants without their green cards that are currently living here as productive members of society?

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “President Obama made his vision clear to us: he wants to put 11 million undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship.  Governor Romney tried to sow confusion, but his views add up to this: he wants to purge most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants from the country by making it impossible for them to work and survive here, except for a few young people who can win residence by serving in the military.  The President wants most undocumented immigrants to stay, and the Governor wants most undocumented immigrants to go.  The contrast is crystal clear.”

President Obama has been a longtime supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, which includes a path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants, including young people known as DREAMers.  As this America’s Voice backgrounder on President Obama’s immigration record makes clear, while the President did not make immigration a year one legislative priority as he originally promised to do, Republican obstructionism was the chief obstacle.  In 2010 President Obama and Democrats pivoted and attempted to pass the DREAM Act, a narrower bill that puts young people who graduate from high school and either attend college or serve in the military on a path to citizenship.  Despite passing the Democratic-led House and despite winning the Senate vote by 55-41, the bill failed to receive the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.  Subsequently, President Obama acted unilaterally to protect the DREAMers, granting an estimated 1.4 million young people relief from deportation work permits.  The President also denounced and fought the Arizona anti-immigrant law in the courts.

Mitt Romney advocates for “self-deportation,” an approach taken directly from the far right anti-immigrant movement (which calls the strategy “attrition through enforcement”).  The goal is to make life so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they pick up and leave the country.  The elements include a mandatory E-Verify aimed at making it impossible for unauthorized workers to find work, Arizona-like laws that make it easier for undocumented immigrants to be identified and arrested, and opposition to any path to legal status for undocumented immigrants (“no amnesty”).  Last night, Romney tried to sow confusion by saying he would not be “in favor of rounding up people…and taking them out of this country,” that his support for the Arizona law focused not on the racial profiling provision but only on the mandatory E-Verify provision (a statement undermined by this video clip of Romney saying unequivocally “I support the Arizona law”), and by suggesting he wanted to provide some sort of permanent status for young people.  But the sum total of his approach to the 11 million undocumented is this: young people who serve in the military can get permanent residence (tens of thousands at most) while most of the 11 million “illegals,” as Romney referred to immigrants last night, will have the “choice” of leaving the country once they can’t get work and are subjected to legalized police harassment.  Moreover, his campaign has made it clear that if elected, he will end the Obama documentation program for DREAMers—at least for the estimated 1.3 million who won’t have secured their work permits by the time of inauguration.  See this America’s Voice backgrounder for a detailed look at Romney’s immigration positions and associations.

According to Sharry, “Obama considers undocumented immigrants Americans-in-waiting and Romney calls them ‘illegals’ who should be forced out of the country. Obama’s clear stand and Romney’s use of this offensive term perhaps says it all.  The President respects hard working immigrant families and the Governor doesn’t.  No wonder Obama is on his way to win record support from Latino voters and Romney is on his way to cementing the Republican brand as anti-immigrant and anti-Latino.”  

America’s Voice — Harnessing the power of American voices and American values to win common sense immigration reform.