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Three Keys to the Immigration Reform Debate

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Enforcement at Historic Highs, Citizenship is Central, GOP Politics Favors Action Now

In the fast-moving discussion of immigration reform, here are three keys to the current debate:

1.  Despite Republican Rhetoric, Immigration Enforcement & Border Security Are Already in Overdrive: Here are the facts: President Obama has presided over a record-high number of deportations; the U.S. government spends $18 billion a year on immigration enforcement, more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined; the Border Patrol has doubled in recent years to a record high of 21,000 agents; and net unauthorized immigration into the U.S. is zero.  Nevertheless, Republicans are dusting off the old “enforcement-first” talking points, pretending that immigration enforcement is currently lacking.  Perhaps they should try to see the world from the point of view of immigrants (see here for some of the tragic stories of families separated by deportations). Immigration enforcement-only has been the default immigration strategy of the United States for over two decades.  If we are serious about modernizing the system so that it serves our nation’s interests and reflects our values, enforcement needs to be coupled with a path to citizenship and legal immigration reforms.  Don’t believe the Republican rap on an out-of-control border and lax enforcement.

2.  Citizenship for the Undocumented Remains the Essential Component of the Immigration Debate:  At the heart of the reform debate is how to address the question, “what to do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in America?”  Mass deportation?  Unworkable and un-American. “Self-deportation?”  Been litigated in the 2012 election and rejected by the American people.  What then?  The only solution that is consistent with our ideals and favored by the public is an inclusive legalization program that leads to an achievable path to citizenship.  Our nation’s past lessons with a permanent underclass should make clear why such an approach is inconsistent with who we are as nation.  Thankfully, some Republicans voices understand the importance of citizenship.  In a Politico magazine piece titled, “The House GOP Can’t Ignore the Path to Citizenship,” former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) calls for “legalization of those folks who are already here, many of whom have been here for a decade or more.  In addition, we should provide them with a path to citizenship much like any other immigrant would have.”  See this recent memo on public opinion in support of citizenship over other alternatives.

3.  Political Realities for GOP Demand Action Now, Not Later: The demographic transformation of America is relentless, and until the GOP rehabilitates its image with the “coalition of the ascendant” its whites-only strategy will spell doom.  While some are offering up the weak tea of “wait ‘til next year” – as if the Republicans next Congress will move on immigration reform after blocking it in 2014, Democrats will make concessions to them in the run up to 2016, and the Presidential primary field will resist being pushed to the right a la Mitt Romney in 2012 – smart analysts are making a strong case for Republican action on reform this year (read E.J. Dionne, Greg Sargent, conservative writer Matt Lewis, and once again Dennis Hastert).  With immigration reform teed up now, Republicans have raised the stakes and expectations on themselves and can’t afford to inch backwards or slow-walk the process any longer.