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On Immigration Reform, America’s Not Waiting on Congress

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With Republicans Blocking Reform Legislation, President Gears up for Executive Action While State and Local Governments Enact Pro-Immigrant Policies

While we await the results of the 2014 elections, the implications for the future of immigration reform are already clear.  As long as Republicans control one or both chambers of Congress, prospects for comprehensive immigration reform legislation are grim.  But that does not mean immigration reform is dead.  It means that the locus of action has moved elsewhere, away from Capitol Hill and to the executive branch as well as to state and local governments.

The fact is that if President Obama acts boldly and states and local jurisdictions continue to enact pro-immigrant policies, the majority of undocumented immigrants will be able to live reasonably normal lives – without fear of deportation, with drivers licenses, with access to in-state tuition rates in state university systems, without fear of being profiled and turned over to federal agents by local law enforcement, and with the ability to travel to their countries or origin and return – all without Congressional action.

Let’s review.  In this Congress, the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill by a 68-32 margin, with all Senators who caucus with Democrats voting yes, joined by a third of the Senate Republicans.  Subsequently, House Republicans could not muster the support to bring forward their own reform package of bills, refused to bring the Senate bill up for a vote and ended up lurching right, passing only measures that would thwart kids fleeing violence in Central America, strip DACA from Dreamers and prevent future executive action.  With the House blocking immigration reform, in late June the President promised to announce executive action by the end of the summer, but in early September delayed the announcement until the end of the year.

The response from Republicans to the prospect of executive branch action?  Just say no.  Evidently, they prefer the status quo to reform.

The good news is that this story of Congressional dysfunction and Republican resistance is hardly the entire story.  Without question, this country needs and deserves a comprehensive overhaul of our nation’s broken immigration system in a way that integrates targeted enforcement, legal immigration reforms and legal status with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.  But with Republicans intransigent, and a 2014 electoral map that is cruel to our cause, our movement has and will find other outlets for our power and our demands.  That is why the President is about to announce protections for millions of undocumented immigrants.  And that is why states and localities are marching forward with policies that grant drivers licenses to all residents regardless of immigration status, that enable Dreamers to attend college, and that restrict collusion between federal immigration agents and local police in order to do away with practices that undermine public confidence in local law enforcement and violate constitutional rights.

Call it the progressive approach to piecemeal immigration reform.  Call it the stepping stones to comprehensive immigration reform.  Call it the best way forward for now – at least until Congress changes hands.  Could 2016 turn out to be a wave election that changes who controls Congress and paves the way for immigration reform legislation?  We hope so and will work to make it so.  But in the meantime, the march of progress advances.

Here are the emerging elements of what might eventually become the new normal for most undocumented immigrants in America.

  • The President is expected to announce long-overdue executive action on immigration by the end of the year.  Advocates are pressing for big and bold action that enables millions of undocumented immigrants to live without fear of deportation because they have deep roots, good character and family ties; apply for work permits so they can work legally; qualify for drivers licenses so they can legally get to work; and take care of family matters by having the ability to travel to their country of origin for visits with the right to return to the U.S. for the first time in many years.
  • Meanwhile, 11 states and DCnow provide a way for undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses or driving authorization – eight states alone in 2013, including in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, and Nevada.
  • In New York City, the City Council recently voted by a 41-6 margin to stophaving the NYPD and the Department of Corrections cooperate with federal immigration detainers (unless said detainer is also accompanied by a judge’s warrant).
  • In Virginia, Attorney General Mark Herring announcedin April that Dreamers enrolled in DACA would qualify for in-state tuition at state public colleges and universities.
  • Late last year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed into lawthat state’s version of the Dream Act.

This is but a sampling of the growing number of local, state and federal policies that recognize what the vast majority of Americans recognize: we have 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in America, most are hardworking people trying to make a better life for their families and we need policies that bring them under the umbrella of legal protections so they can work, drive, study and travel in ways their undocumented status currently prevents.

This approach to immigration reform is far from complete and far from perfect.  In the end, we need Congress to act.  But in the meantime, our movement will continue to fight for policies at all levels and in all jurisdictions that respect the dignity of immigrants and live true to our ideals as a nation.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “For a long time, many advocates, including me, have argued that we needed comprehensive immigration reform passed by Congress upfront so that the Administration, states and local governments could take the new statutory paradigm and implement it on the ground.  But now, it may well be that the Administration, states and local governments will do what they can within their legal authority to create facts on the ground without a new statutory framework, and that the enactment of comprehensive immigration reform will come later – and probably only when Democrats control both chambers of Congress.  Long live immigration reform.  Unfortunately, the ‘bipartisan’ approach to it may have already died.  Fortunately, America is no longer waiting on Congress to make progress.”