IMMIGRATION: Reheating a Cold Enchilada

By Lawrence Downes | Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies, Spring 2013

Special supplement to the Spring 2013 Berkeley Review

Two years ago I spoke at this institute about immigration, my main beat on The Times’s editorial board for the last eight or so years. I have to admit, I was very depressing. I didn’t stick around after the speech, but I sincerely hope I did not infect the rest of the proceedings with the mood I was feeling at the time, that mix of hopeless optimism, of determined despair, when you know your team is way behind, deep in the hole, when the players you need are Kobe and LeBron, and the players you have are Schumer and Menendez.

I talked about how far the hopes for immigration reform had fallen since the nearly triumphant days of 2006 and 2007, when the unlikely Senate duo of John McCain and Ted Kennedy cooked up what Kennedy liked to call the whole enchilada — a comprehensive bill to fix immigration all at once — at the border and in the workplace, in the future flow of guest workers and family members, and in legalizing what was then a population of 12 million people, living, in the overused but perfectly apt metaphor, in the shadows.

That bill died, as did its slender offshoot the Dream Act, for a few million blameless children of the undocumented. The debate went into a fallow, festering period. When I spoke, Kennedy was dead, but Sheriff Joe Arpaio was still with us, rounding up “illegals” and parading them in chains through the streets of Phoenix. President Bush, whose administration had razor-wired the border and staged family-devastating workplace raids in places like Postville, Iowa, was gone, but his successor was outpacing him in deportations, jamming the pipeline in a bid to gain political cover for a reform that was nowhere to be seen. Sheriff Joe, Jan Brewer, Russell Pearce, and Kris Kobach were ascendant. The ideological fuzz around Mitt Romney was about to clear — on immigration, anyway — as he started doing his self-deportation thing. The talk-radio argument — no amnesty today, no amnesty tomorrow, no amnesty forever — seemed to have won the day.

The enchilada was cold and unappetizing, and nobody wanted to touch it.

Now, today, this month, we have a bill, and a surprisingly decent one. It needs to get better and is no sure thing in the Senate, much less the House, but as Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said in The Times, it’s the best chance for comprehensive reform in 25 years. Schumer says it’s politically more risky today to oppose immigration reform than to support it, which seems plausible.

So what happened? The quick answer everybody gives is the election, and Romney’s decision to move hard to the right on immigration, not just to right field but out beyond the bleachers and the parking lot, into the fringy, weedy area where people stand around chewing on phrases like “self-deportation” and “attrition through enforcement.” Romney’s epic mistake led to Obama’s huge victory margins among Asian and Latino voters and caused Republicans — at least some Republicans — to wake up to the changing face of America and conclude that they had to evolve or die.

Mitt Romney gives an interview on stage in 2012 at a rally in Paradise Valley, Arizona. (Photo by Gage Skidmore.)

That could be it: a simple demographic, arithmetic calculation, a party not wanting to write off a fast-growing ethnic group — end of story.

But I’m drawn as well to other reasons, supplementary explanations for why the climate shifted, why the ground gave way — if it really has.

One factor simply may have been the exhaustion of an untenable position — mass deportation without legalization — an argument that never made sense and could only be brandished for so long.

The public never really bought it. Years of opinion polling have shown that a majority of Americans favor the comprehensive approach, assimilation over deportation. They are willing to accept that legalizing the 11 million, once conditions are met — taxes, fines, and the end of the line — makes more sense than rounding up a group as big as the population of Ohio, or making them miserable and waiting them out.

Another thing that helped is the rise of the Dreamers, young students who have marched and rallied and fasted for the right to get right with the law. They have ferocious energy. They took to civil disobedience, but not trespassing or vandalism, for attention. They violated the unjust laws that directly affected them, risking all they had in presenting themselves to ICE, to Sheriff Arpaio, to the American public, and accepting the consequences. Advocates like Gaby Pacheco and Lorella Praelli and thousands of others, working far outside the Beltway, probably have done more to help the cause of all the undocumented than a boatload of foundation-financed lobbyists and consultants. They have given the debate urgency and a human face — it’s a lot easier to humiliate, abuse, and deport an abstraction than a Gaby Pacheco, who will first hug you, and then insist that you explain why you are doing this cruel, senseless thing.

The Dreamers have shown how they earned the right to legalize, but you also have to credit President Obama for his decision to defer deportations for some of them under the program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a somewhat risky politically risky move that didn’t bring about the end of the world but did inspire much hope and goodwill in the Latino community and gave a sense of what a larger legalization might look like.

I’d give Senator Marco Rubio of Florida credit, too, for intelligent framing — “stop the de facto amnesty,” his line, is a phrase that Republicans and Democrats can get behind. He has shown a Republican can sound tough without being cruel.

Because for all the anxiety in the immigration debate in recent years, most Americans have shied away from outright cruelty. The native-born were mystified in the last few decades about where all these Latinos came from, and some reacted with age-old American suspicion and clannishness. They have been bothered by the fairness argument — why should these people be allowed in when my grandparents came the right way, and wasn’t Reagan supposed to have solved this in 1986?

These are fair questions that deserve a good answer.

Unfortunately for editorial writers like me, the answer is much longer-winded than “no amnesty.” It’s one of those irritating yes-but arguments. Yes, they’re here illegally, but no, they don’t have to stay illegal; it’s better to assimilate than to expel. Yes, border fencing and workplace sweeps sound tough, but the other approach – enforcement with legalization, registration and workplace rights — is the stronger law-and-order argument. Yes, large-scale immigration brings rapid, unexpected, sometimes disorderly changes to society, but no, this is not the end of America. We’re used to this. We invented it. This is our M.O.

Earlier faces of immigration - a portrait of a family of Polish migrant berry pickers in Maryland in 1909. (Photo by Lewis Hine from Wikimedia Commons, colored by Robek.)

There used to be more Republicans who knew these answers, understood them, had them memorized. Some who, uh, forgot have wandered back to the table, like McCain and Lindsey Graham. There are some new arrivals, like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, who suddenly started saying, re amnesty, “Why the hell not?”

This is something to marvel at. Are these people only now realizing that the problem won’t be solved at the border, that something has to be done about the 11 million and those who are behind them, waiting to come in legally? What part of the lunacy of their argument did they not understand back then?

McCain abandoned immigration reform and said, instead, complete the dang fence. He was running for re-election against a hard-liner, but he knew the fence was dang uncompletable, in his or any of our lifetimes, and wouldn’t solve the problem anyway. McCain knew, he knew viscerally, as an Arizonan, what suffering people endure to get here and the miseries and dangers they face in the Sonora and the streets of Maricopa County. He knew what it was like to dehydrate and die in the desert. I know because he used to talk about it, more movingly than anyone else I have ever heard.

Now he and some other conservatives have shuffled back on the bus. You kind of want to say: Where have you been? How long are you staying? Can I get you anything? Are you feeling O.K.?

Maybe it’s better not to ask.

Could it be that the more thoughtful argument is going win, and that this is the year? It’s hard to judge momentum — I know advocates felt a jolt of immigration PTSD when the Boston bombings hit, because the country was precisely on the brink of big immigration reform in September 2001. 9/11 ushered in the homeland-security state and was the end of immigration reform for more than a decade.

So far the Tsarnaevs have not derailed the momentum, but it’s a fast-moving story, and I don’t know how it will end.

One optimistic scenario is that a bill will not just pass in the Senate but do so overwhelmingly, with 70 votes, so that the House will be forced to take it up and pass it, too. That seems less likely than the House passing its own bill — nothing comprehensive, maybe a bill to expand E-Verify — which then gets reconciled with the Senate bill in conference committee. Conference “is where Jeff Sessions gets rolled,” a House staffer told me. And then the whole mess ends up on Obama’s desk, and all is good.

Now that we are at the edge of a deal, there is hope that this long movie might finally be over soon. But we don’t know how it ends.

Don’t count out the antis, who may be outnumbered but are ready to fire.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, said: “I think the opposition is counting on mistrust of government, hatred of Obama, and the idea that Congress can’t get anything right to combine as the pathway to no.”

The resistance to this bill is strong among the small but vocal percentage who believe that immigration is bad for America, and brown-skinned immigration is particularly bad. They killed reform last time and will obviously keep trying.

Senator Sessions issues press releases every day, several times a day, explaining why the Senate bill will be the end of America as we know it. Representative Steve King of Iowa says he is keeping his powder dry.

But it’s not just this crowd who are complaining about the dangers if we introduce too many foreign bodies into the American bloodstream.

I recently read this in my own paper: “Many of America’s economic difficulties are rooted in social and cultural problems, and a policy that just ignores those problems” — that is, comprehensive immigration reform that brings in lots of poor Latinos — “is a policy that’s likely to make them worse.”

The point — stop me if you’ve heard this one — was that Latinos don’t assimilate well, and we’re in for big trouble if we get swamped with too many poor, lower-skilled workers who fail to thrive and spawn underachieving offspring. Me, as the descendant of uneducated laborers from Ireland and Okinawa, the Ireland of Japan, I’m willing to take my chances that a good jolt of work ethic, family values, and fully assimilated grandchildren, that old American story, is what this country needs.

It’s hard to know how effective the opponents will be. They may not be able to kill the bill, but they will certainly try to make it worse. This is where advocates of reform have to worry: about the old tactics of divide-and-conquer and poison pills slipped into the bill to make it unpalatable and unworkable.

 It will be important, as debate progresses, to keep an eye on who’s being left out. We know the path to green cards and citizenship will be long, more than a decade unless you’re a Dreamer. It will also be expensive and full of off-ramps. Unless the bill is amended, LGBT families will be left out. There may be a continuous-work requirement, disqualifying people who have been unemployed for stretches of time — day laborers and nannies, and people who got sick or lost jobs in the downturn.

Then there are the poor, the people who can’t come up with the hundreds or thousands of dollars to pay fines, back taxes, and application fees.

People will be rejected for “aggravated felonies,” a flexible term that doesn’t necessarily mean serious or violent crimes, and for having too many misdemeanors, bad news if you live in places like Sheriff Arpaio’s Arizona.

 a bumper sticker encouraging reporting migrants to law enforcement. (Photo by cobalt123.)

What happens to these people? And as we push and penalize more and more undeserving people off the list, will we be pushing the system closer to immigration eugenics, where we try to pick just the right immigrant flow to match our ideas of what our country should be, as if we were furnishing an apartment or picking the guest list for a party?

And will we be planting the seeds of future failure, turning those we needlessly reject into the nucleus of a new crop of unauthorized immigrants living and working outside the system we tried so hard to fix? In 1986 we legalized a bunch of people but didn’t create a better way — or any way — for new immigrants to come in.

These are complicated, as yet unanswerable questions. I have others:

What if all the newly legalized farmworkers quit? What if the new agriculture guest-worker program doesn’t work as well as it should in getting a steady, legal supply of people into the fields? Where will the weak spots be, when the economy picks up and the revamped machinery starts to rev? Where will the pressure build, how will the scammers scam? How will the bureaucracy handle it?

What happens when the workplace verification program kicks in and the country realizes that everybody — Tea Partiers too — will have to prove the right to work. What happens when no-amnesty meets don’t-tread-on-me?

Immigration. It’s so maddening, and I love it so much.

I choke up at naturalization ceremonies, as maybe you do, too. It’s not every day you see such love and pride in the things that make this country wonderful, expressed without reserve or irony or embarrassment.

It’s more important than any other beat, because its issues are so vital. Immigration is about who we are as a country, answering fundamental questions of who’s in and who’s out. It’s about things that matter — life, death, survival — of people, of families, of communities

Earlier I compared immigration with a movie. I like that image. It’s a movie. It’s the American movie. It’s “The Jazz Singer.” It’s “The Jazz Singer” meets “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” meets “Moonstruck.” It’s “Alien vs. Predator.” It’s a desert epic, a gritty city tale, a story of forbidden love and thwarted love, a prison drama, a family saga. It is drones, zombies, idealistic throngs taking to the streets, meeting their destiny in a time of passion in a world gone mad. It is a gang of senators coming together for one last score — wily old guys named Chuck and Dick and young punks named Jeff and Marco — Ocean’s 8, or the Dirty 8, or the Magnificent 8 — we’ll have to see about that.

It’s a wise old Jedi who died but is still with us — Ted Kennedy — I sure hope that old man got that tractor beam out of commission, or this is going to be a really short trip. I sure hope he’s helping Chuck fire the photon torpedoes into the exhaust port so he can blow this thing so we can all go home.

Lawrence Downes is a member of The New York Times editorial board with a focus on immigration and veterans issues. He spoke for The Changing Face of America Institute at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism on May 2, 2013.

President Obama and Vice President Biden meet with DREAMers who have received Deferred Action and U.S. citizen family members of undocumented immigrants in the Oval Office, May 2013. (Photo by Pete Souza/Official White House Photo.)