When most Americans enter the voting booth, they are looking for candidates — and future public servants — who will show leadership in tackling the nation’s toughest challenges. On the issue of immigration, they continue to be disappointed.
Despite nationwide polls which show majority support for comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship for the undocumented, the new Congress has already kicked the can down the road, with many proclaiming it a dead issue. Some have argued that the border must be secure before proceeding to a reform bill, but have failed to provide a realistic definition of what “secure” means.
A majority in the House of Representatives is content on increasing enforcement policies which divide U.S. citizen families yet have no hope of solving the underlying problem of a broken system. Despite the efforts of the Senate leadership, a bipartisan consensus on a reform measure is unlikely to emerge in that chamber anytime soon. Some in both houses have gone so far as to propose punishing the unborn children of undocumented immigrants by denying them citizenship upon their birth.
Most surprisingly, however — and in contradiction to campaign promises to address the issue immediately — the current administration has spent little real political capital to advance the immigration reform cause, notwithstanding a few strategically planned speeches. In the lame duck session last year, it was clear that the DREAM Act — a sympathetic measure to aid young immigrants to attend college — ranked last on the administration wish list, behind the tax deal, the START Treaty, and the repeal of the policy on gays in the military. The measure lost by five votes.
Even more puzzling, the administration has stepped up enforcement efforts, deporting a record number of persons, most of whom they also claim they want to put on a path to citizenship. In fact, they have touted their deportation record to Congress, boasting that they have exceeded the numbers deported in the previous administration.
The number of persons detained also is up, with asylum-seekers and families being incarcerated unnecessarily. And by expanding the 287(g) and Secure Communities programs, the administration has effectively given local governments carte blanche to enforce federal immigration law, leading in some jurisdictions to round-ups and racial profiling.
This race to the bottom on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue may play well with certain constituencies, but does not advance the common good. In fact, the lack of action on broader reform on the federal level has led to a de facto abdication of the issue to state and local governments, which are ill-equipped to address the issue effectively and humanely. Now, immigration policy is being carried out in different ways by hundreds of governments, not just one. This may look like change, but it is not the kind we should believe in and is certainly not for the better.
What is the result of this enforcement-only approach to immigration, in human terms? Besides devastating immigrant families — many with U.S. citizen children — it has adversely changed the relationship between immigrant communities and the rest of the nation, perhaps permanently.
Immigrant families live in fear, and the effective working relationships and trust which once existed between law enforcement and immigrant neighborhoods have been seriously eroded. These policies have not only impacted undocumented immigrants but also legal immigrants and U.S. citizens — not a good way to foster local and national immigrant integration.
Should immigration reform be shelved indefinitely and state and local immigration enforcement continue unchecked, the nation’s social fabric will begin to tear, to the detriment of all Americans.
The Obama administration would be wise to try to avoid such a legacy by re-examining their enforcement strategies and refocusing their political efforts on generating some momentum on Capitol Hill for reform. Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, as well as Florida’s House delegation, should work with the president to forge a bipartisan consensus.
Part of the responsibility of our elected officials is to educate their constituents and to lead, even if that means risking the loss of some potential political support, at least in the short-term. It is called statesmanship, and it has helped our country tackle difficult issues at important moments in our history. It has helped make us a great nation.
On immigration, this trait is severely lacking. On this issue and many others, let us hope that our national leadership wakes up and remembers why they were elected.
Archbishop Wenski is a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Committee on Migration.