National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

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Please Pass the Gravy (and DREAM Act and AgJOBS)

November 24, 2010 - Posted by Mario Moreno

Thanksgiving can mean many different things to different people, but at the core of our American tradition, Thanksgiving roots us in a sense of history, family, fellowship and the sharing of a collective bounty. No matter our differences or ideologies, we come together for this distinctly American holiday that commemorates an event that existed prior to our formation as a nation and which symbolizes our ability to put aside differences for the sake of the common good. The enduring tradition of Thanksgiving is in fact, one of our earliest examples of bipartisanship.

This year, Thanksgiving comes in a post-election landscape that has many of our most visible political leaders entrenched in deeply partisan stances. It comes at a time of continued economic hardship and a recession that we have yet to fully recover from; it comes at a time when everyone seems to be asking, “what’s in it for me” and “is there enough to go around?” This year, Thanksgiving also comes at a time when our Members of Congress have again left the work of comprehensive immigration reform undone and a solution, to the brokenness of our system and families who have been torn apart, seems like a far-off dream. But in reality, the dream is closer than we think.


This year marks the tenth Thanksgiving in which Congress has failed to pass the DREAM Act or AgJOBS, two bills that celebrate many of the things for which Americans are thankful. Every table in this nation will likely give thanks for the food that has been purchased, prepared and shared at tomorrow’s meal; yet how many will thank the estimated 75% of undocumented workers who were responsible for harvesting that food? Many tables will also give thanks for the men and women serving in our Armed Forces at home and abroad; yet how many will thank the 35,000 legal immigrants serving in those forces, or the 8,000 legal immigrants that enlist every year? We tend to see only what is in front of us, not what is missing. We see the turkey, the mashed potatoes, and the pumpkin pie, but not the undocumented farmworker faces that made them possible. We see our uniformed officers and infantry on the front lines, but not the undocumented future enlistees who are prevented from serving us.


This Thanksgiving is an opportunity for our elected leaders to reflect upon America’s collective educational and economic bounty of undocumented youth and farmworkers and how they should be allowed to fully contribute to our strength and security as a nation. Our Members of Congress need to sit down at the table, put aside their differences and work together to enact these two common-sense measures for the good of all Americans. This is one Thanksgiving that shouldn’t leave the DREAM Act and AgJOBS as leftovers for another next Congress.

New Americans in the Armed Forces

November 11, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Military naturalization


Thankfully, most Americans don’t have to risk their lives to defend the country.  Today is Veterans Day, a day when we reflect on those who do risk their lives to defend our freedoms. 


Thousands of the service men and women who are deployed around the world, defending the freedoms that citizens take for granted, are not citizens themselves, or have only recently become citizens.  According to a report issued last year by the Immigration Policy Center, more than 114,000 immigrants were serving in the military in 2009.  Of those, approximately 14,500 were not yet citizens. 


A willingness to sacrifice one’s life for a country that is not yet yours might be hard to understand for those of us born here.  But for many born abroad, America is full of opportunities they may never have had if they did not come here.


For Ambassador John Gunther Dean (whose story is posted here), the opportunity America provided was the chance to live his life.  He and his family came from Germany to America, fleeing Nazi persecution in the late 1930s.  When Dean was a student at Harvard, America went to war.  Dean jumped at the chance to serve a “bigger cause” and put his German language skills to use in the Office of Military Intelligence.


Recognizing the tremendous sacrifice of immigrant soldiers, the government has done a better job of streamlining the citizenship process for armed forces men and women.  In the government’s Fiscal Year 2010 alone, more than 11,000 service men and women were given their citizenship—more than in any year since 1955.  Yesterday, 75 service members from 24 countries were sworn in as citizens in a special ceremony where they were addressed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas.


Some military service members (citizens and non-citizens alike) find that their family members receive no special treatment from our broken immigration system.  It is not uncommon for a military service member to return from combat duty only to discover that his or her spouse is going to be deported.  A soldier who has put his or her life on the line fighting for this country may return home to wage a second battle against a broken immigration system that shows no mercy to his or her wife or husband. 


While it has become easier for members of the military to gain their citizenship, there is little prospect that Congress will, in the near future, make it easier for military families of mixed immigration status to remain together.


Image from the White House.

Bersin’s Blind Spots

November 09, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Border Patrol


This post was drafted by Forum intern Charles Gillig.


When the Department of Homeland Security, Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Alan Bersin, took office in April 2010, we recommended areas where he could start work. These priorities, and others, are essential to ensure our border is enforced in a safe, humane and legal manner. We were thus disappointed when Commissioner Bersin failed to mention any of these initiatives in a major policy speech he gave at the Migration Policy Institute on October 13.  (Read the transcript.)  


In this speech, Commissioner Bersin set out his vision for the CBP with a major emphasis on “securing the border.”  Ensuring a secure border is an appropriate goal if it is well-defined, but it is misguided without proper oversight and accountability.  Security should not come at the expense of constitutional rights and economic progress.  The main goal of any border enforcement agency should be to secure the nation’s borders without impeding trade or legitimate travel.


Unfortunately, border enforcement in the United States has been accompanied by unnecessary racial profiling, community harassment and, in some cases, deaths. Secretary Napolitano has frequently stated that our borders are more secure now than at any other time, so why should officers feel it is necessary or justified to abuse their power in the line of duty?


Commissioner Bersin’s vision for the CBP should include accountability for misconduct, when individuals are treated inhumanely by CBP officers.  He should be pushing new policies that improve officer training and oversight so that migrants, business travelers, vacationers, border residents, and U.S. citizens are treated respectfully and fairly.  Maintaining security in our border regions is critical, but protecting individual liberty and dignity is just as vital. Conducting border enforcement in a respectful and dignified manner is not just a small detail in a wider border policy, but demonstrates whether the U.S. government can handle complex problems in a humane and just manner.  


Image by Flickr user Jim Greenhill.

Update: The Results of the Elections and Immigration in the 112th Congress

November 09, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

The mid-term elections saw Republicans picking up more than 60 seats in the House of Representatives, enough to give them control.  The leadership change means not only does the Speaker of the House give up her gavel, but the chairmanship of all the committees and subcommittees change as well.


Committee Leadership


While it is too early to say what the precise makeup of the Committees will be, we do expect that the current top-ranking Republican members to assume leadership of the Committees having to do with immigration. 


Judiciary Committee: Lamar Smith (R-TX):  In the mid-1990s, Smith authored the law that became the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA).  Among other things, this law included summary exclusion for persons arriving in the U.S. without proper documents; the three- and ten-year bars to admissibility for persons deported from the U.S.; the one-year asylum filing deadline; the electronic worker verification system that has evolved into today’s E-Verify; the 287(g) program; and a mandate for an annual increase in the Border Patrol and construction of a “triple-tiered” border fence. By greatly expanding the definition of “aggravated felony,” applying punishment retroactively, and severely restricting judicial review, the law has resulted in the removal of thousands of legal immigrants who have committed minor crimes.


In its original form, the law would have reduced legal immigration by taking out parents of U.S. citizens from the “immediate relatives” category and eliminating the category for brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens.  (Smith’s effort to cut legal immigration was thwarted in the Senate.)


Smith has continued to be a tireless opponent of immigration reform and an advocate of more enforcement.  Recently, Smith has supported the rights of states to enforce immigration laws, legislation to end birthright citizenship, and mandatory application of the E-Verify electronic worker verification system.  See this member profile from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and this article from Politico for more on Rep. Smith.


Regardless of any legislation he may try to advance, as Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Smith will be in a position to hold hearings where Administration officials will have to answer his charges that they are “ignoring” immigration laws.  A recent column posted on his Web site includes some of the assertions about the Obama Administration’s enforcement of immigration laws that he may turn in to topics of oversight hearings.


Immigration Subcommittee: Steve King (R-IA):  Representative King has been outspoken and extreme in his views about immigration.  In 2006, for example, he delivered remarks on the floor of the House while building a model of a border wall that he felt should be built, including an electrified wire on top to act as a “disincentive for people to climb over the top or put a ladder there.”  After all, according to King, “[w]e do that with livestock all the time.” 


In an interview with Politico, King announced that he would like to see legislation to end birthright citizenship, to reaffirm states’ right to enact Arizona-like immigration laws, to take away deductions from employers who pay illegal immigrants, and to crack down on cities that don’t go after illegal residents.


For more information on Rep. King, see AILA’s member profile of him.  You can read more of Rep. King’s choice words on immigration here.


Homeland Security Committee: Peter King (R-NY) is currently the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee.  There is a question as to whether King will be given the Chairmanship; the Republican caucus has term-limit rules for leadership of committees.  Should he obtain a waiver to the rule, he told Congressional Quarterly that, regarding immigration, the Committee will push for legislation focused on “law enforcement both at the border and in the interior United States.”


Rules Committee:  The House Rules Committee is the last stop for legislation before it is considered on the House floor.  The Rules Committee decides the terms of debate on legislation.  Unlike the Senate, where Senators can spend days considering amendments and hundreds of amendments may be considered, the Rules Committee in the House will decide which amendments will be considered before debate begins.  The Rules Committee under Democratic leadership has been helpful by not allowing many amendments proposed by immigration hard-liners.  (The amendments are often extraneous or “non-germane” to the bill being considered.)  With leadership now in Republican hands, we can expect that more restrictionist amendments will be allowed on a variety of legislation unrelated to immigration debated in the House.  David Dreier, currently the ranking member on the Committee, is expected to assume leadership.  On his Web site, Dreier touts his sponsorship of H.R. 98, which would require all workers to present a Social Security card with machine-readable information establishing work authorization when they apply for a job.  In the 110th Congress, he was a co-sponsor of a bill that would have, among other things, required the hiring of 18,000 more Border Patrol agents.


New Members:  According to the Center for American Progress, of the more than 100 freshman Republicans of the 112th Congress, “39% have already declared their intention to end the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship.”  Almost a third want to reduce legal immigration.


Newly-elected members include Lou Barletta (R), who will represent Pennsylvania’s 11th District.  As Mayor of Hazelton, he pushed through a local ordinance in 2006 to deny business permits to companies that employ undocumented immigrants, and to fine landlords who rent to them.  (The law was later struck down as unconstitutional.)  Rand Paul (R), the Senator-elect from Kentucky, said on his campaign Web site that he opposes “amnesty” and favors building “an electronic fence” along the Southwest border.  He also favors ending birthright citizenship.  Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio will be Florida’s new Senator.  He is of Cuban-American descent, but has taken a hard line on immigration.  On his Web site, he says that regarding immigration, he believes “that our nation’s immigration policy should consist of border enforcement, securing the border, fixing the visa process and ensuring that no law extends amnesty to illegal immigrants.”


State Governorships and Legislatures


In addition to the turnover in Congress, Republicans made big gains among State Governorships and legislatures.  Of the 37 states that held gubernatorial elections, there were 29 Republican wins verses 18 Democrats.  In state legislatures, Republicans added more than 675 seats to their ranks, and made some historic takeovers—for example, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans now control the Minnesota Senate for the first time in history.  The Republican tilt in state governments will affect the outcome of efforts to adopt state and local anti-immigration measures, including legislation modeled after Arizona’s SB 1070.


Prospects for Progress


While prospects for positive immigration reform legislation getting through the 112th Congress will be remote, any effort to enact hard-line enforcement-only legislation will face the same question that pro-reform advocates have faced in the 111th Congress: Are there 60 votes in the Senate?  As the Washington Independent put it,


A Democratic Senate will have trouble getting immigrant-friendly measures past the House, while the House will have trouble getting enforcement-only measures past the Senate — or the president’s desk. The result will likely be more of the same on immigration policy.


Prospects for Republicans in the next election may be influenced by how prominently they feature the anti-immigration, enforcement-only agenda of immigration restrictionists in their party.  Will Republicans allow Steve King and Lamar Smith to be the face of the Republican Party on the immigration issue?  If so, they may feed a trend where Latinos—the fastest-growing portion of the electorate—have been migrating to the Democratic Party.  In this election, Latinos in some key states voted overwhelmingly Democratic and helped Democrats retain control of the Senate.  The use of immigration as a divisive wedge issue backfired in some very important races, motivating Latinos to go to the polls to punish the politicians who portrayed them as criminals.  (For more on how Latinos acted in this election, see this Immpolitic blog post.)  Over the next two years, Republicans will have to decide whether they will continue to alienate Latino voters, or change their tune on immigration and offer real solutions for our broken immigration system, not divisive sound bites.

Election Lessons Unlearned (Still)

November 05, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger



In Tuesday’s election, Republicans rode a wave of voter discontent with the economy to take control of the House of Representatives.  They failed to take control of the Senate. 


Their failure to take the Senate in part is due to the continuation of trends that have been unfolding for a long time, and are now starting to show concrete effects.


For the last several election cycles, Republican candidates for Congress have been using immigration as a polarizing wedge issue, meant to stir up those in their predominantly white base who are fearful of the demographic change the country is experiencing.


This election cycle was no different.  Take the case of Sharron Angle, the Tea Party darling who came close to beating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.  She ran several ads that alternated images of scary Latino-looking people, portrayed as criminals and gang members, with images of white people, whose resources were being drained by the brown people. 


The ads worked to gin up the base…just not hers.


Angle’s tactics worked to drive Latinos to the Democratic camp in unprecedented numbers—and it increased their turnout from what might otherwise have been expected in a mid-term election (especially after so little has been accomplished on immigration reform in the past two years).


The neck and neck race that captivated the pundits ended with Reid winning by a 5% margin—50% to 45%.  Among Latinos, the story was dramatically different.  Reid garnered 90% of the Latino vote to Angle’s 8%.  Latinos made up 15% of the electorate (up from 12% in 2006).  The Latino contribution to Reid’s margin, according to a Latino Decisions poll, was 9.8%—more than his margin of victory.


The story was repeated in several other close races.  Among them, the Senate race in Colorado, where incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet narrowly won his re-election bid against challenger Ken Buck.  Buck was endorsed by the anti-immigrant PAC Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, and used immigration in his ads (though not as aggressively as Angle).  Bennet won by 48% to 47%, but among Latinos, his margin was 81% to 19%.  Latinos made up 12% of the electorate. 


In California, Barbara Boxer won her re-election to the Senate, and Jerry Brown will be the next Governor, both with the help of very lopsided Latino vote margins.


According to a poll conducted by Latino Decisions in eight states (AZ, CA, CO, FL, IL, NM, NV, TX), immigration was named by 37% of Latino voters as their “top concern,” second only to jobs and the economy.  In those states, 60% said that immigration was the most important or one of the most important issues motivating them to vote.  In these states, Latinos overall supported Democrats by a margin of 75% to 25%.


Not all Democrats did as well as Senator Reid, who has embraced immigration reform and heavily courted the Latino vote in the Spanish language media.  According to America’s Voice, in Florida, for example, Democrats “did not exploit their opponent’s vulnerability on the immigration issue with Spanish language advertising,” and they did not do as well.  (Florida also has the anomaly of a large population of Cubans, who tend to vote Republican.)


In the last several elections, Republican political candidates have failed to learn the lesson that using immigration as a polarizing wedge issue is driving Latinos into the Democratic camp.  Political strategists of all stripes have warned that, with Latinos being the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, Republicans run the risk, in the long term, of being a minority party for a very long time if they continue to alienate Latino voters.  Thus far, it appears that many Republican candidates have failed to learn that lesson.  It may well have cost them the Senate.


Image by Flickr user Kate O.

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