Recent talk about "immigration reform" coming from Washington inspires some hope, some fear and lots of reminders about what I call "political-dualism": the ability of a President or political party to simultaneously communicate opposing policies while delivering either no new policies or exceptionally bad ones.
As the Obama Administration prepares to take the reins of the massive and massively inefficient and broken immigration system, it is important to have clarity about the incontrovertible need to overcome the political dualism that created our immigration mess in the first place.
My first practical experience of lobbying and of political dualism came during the Clinton years. At that time, in the mid-'90s, I was head of Central American Resource Center ( CARECEN), then the country's largest immigrant rights organization. Like many immigrant rights activists today, my colleagues at CARECEN and around the country and I marched and protested and sued and lobbied to end the undocumented status of immigrants.
In one case, for example, we sought to secure legal status for the hundreds of thousands of Central American refugees denied political asylum and other forms of legalization by both the Reagan and Bush I Administrations due to the Republican's politicization of the immigration process. In the end, our many efforts yielded only partial success in the form of what is known as Temporary Protective Status (TPS) granted by the first Bush Administration.
Much like the rising tide of expectations today, the triumphal return of the Democrats to the White House in 1992 brought with it expectations ÔÇôand official promises- of an immigration reform, one that would legalize Salvadorans and Guatemalans living under TPS. TPS allows immigrants to work temporarily in the country, but does nothing to remove the specter of vulnerability before employers, landlords and others who exploit immigrants' temporary status for economic and personal gain.
Images of my cousin, Maria, crying alone in her room because of oppressive hotel bosses and because of her inability to see her son, who she left and had not seen since he was 3 years old, remain with me as a reminder of the perils and pain of temporary and undocumented status.
I remember how Clinton Administration officials with impressive credentials like Alex Aleinikoff and others charged with immigration matters, told us in un-Republican and friendly terms, that "We definitely want to resolve the TPS issue- but right now is not the right time." Eight years after the Clinton Administration led the Democrats return to power, Maria and other immigrants with TPS saw no change in their legal status. And, now, nearly 20 years since TPS was first instituted, as I watch how Republican rejection and the Democrats' political dualism have left many TPS holders and more than 12 million other immigrants living under the tyranny of "temporary" and undocumented status, I find myself struggling with my own dualism: believing in the possibility of "real change" inspired by Obama's presidential campaign while also hearing distant echoes of the Democrats' immigration siren song.
Consider the conflicted and conflicting recent statements about immigration reform made by Congressional Democratic leaders. Asked last month what she thought about the possibility for immigration reform, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded, "Maybe there never is a path to citizenship if you came here illegally," adding "I would hope that there could be, but maybe there isn't." Asked the same question earlier last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid responded in no uncertain terms, "We've got McCain and we've got a few others. I don't expect much of a fight at all." That such mixed messages would come from the Democrats is much more than another expression of the contradictory views often held by members of the same party. Viewed from the vantage point of the recent and not-so-recent and rather twisted history of non-reform has been immigration policy, these conflicting messages sent by the Democratic leadership should be viewed as a more recent variation on the theme of the political dualism that lead us nowhere.
Hearing recently that Obama had appointed Aleinikoff, the former Clinton operative, as one of the two people leading the immigration policy transition team did little to inspire hope among those of us with a political memory. But Obama's announcement that Stanford scholar, Tino Cuellar, a young, outside-the-Beltway academic whom I've spoken with and who friends in the legal community consider fair, decent and smart, tilted my spirits towards believing change might be possible. But then news of Obama's likely appointment of Arizona Governor and former Clinton-U.S. Attorney appointee, Janet Napolitano, to lead the Department of Homeland Security only reinforced the belief that political dualism may define the Obama legacy on immigration; Napolitano has enthusiastically supported "emergency measures" like militarizing the border to "fight" the "threat" posed by immigrant gardeners, meatpackers and maids like my cousin, Maria; But she has also vetoed at least a few of the more than 75 anti-immigrant measures introduced in Arizona home to the infamous Sheriff, Joe Arpaio.
Arpaio, who is responsible for introducing highly controversial policies like deploying deputies in immigration sweeps of entire Latino neighborhoods, enjoyed the tacit political and financial support for these practices from Napolitano for several years. Napolitano did nothing to curtail the alarming number of deaths in Arpaio's immigrant jails and only decided to yank funding for his immigration program in the middle of the Democratic primary earlier this year.
If anything, the immigrant deaths, racial tensions, incessant raids and other indicators of the failure to improve immigration policy in Arizona provide immigrant advocates like Alexis Mazon of the Tucson-based Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, little inspiration and lots of concern. According to Mazon, Napolitano's record of previous support for Arpaio and for "some of the most dangerous immigration practices of any state in the country" give one no cause for joining the chorus of Democrats, media pundits and Beltway (as opposed to outside-the-Beltway groups like Mazon's) immigration groups gushing over Napolitano's "tough and smart" approach to immigration.
And as the Obama Administration and the rest of us prepare for the possibility of a renewed discussion and debate around immigration reform, those of us outside the Beltway must put terminating political dualism alongside developing and advocating for a real reform agenda at the top of our strategies and actions.
Such a mobilizing approach revived what I remember was a moribund immigration debate of 2006, and nothing less is required now. In addition to mobilizing as they did in 2006, outside-the-Beltway advocates will also have to find new and creative ways to move the debate and discussion around immigration beyond the growing Washington consensus: combining the politically dualistic "tough and smart" policies that legalize immigrants while increasing the number and types of punitive policies that took up 700 of the 800 pages of the failed McCain-Kennedy "liberal" reform proposal.
Transcending the "tough and smart" political dualism of immigration reform means replacing the so-called "tradeoffs" of the McCain-Kennedy bill with "safe and sane" policies that combine legalization with fundamental and necessary changes to our broken immigration system.
The first consideration in any serious reform should be removing the immigration processing functions from the anti-terrorist bureaucracy of the Homeland Security Department and placing them in the Commerce or Justice Departments or some other less national security-focused part of government as has been the case throughout the history of immigration policy.
In addition to a less-punitive approach to legalization than the get tough approach of the McCain-Kennedy bill, out-of-the-Beltway advocates are also advocating for immigration reform policies that consider fair trade and economic development, human rights, U.S. foreign policy and other hemispheric issues that directly influence the flow of migration. Such a firm and steady, yet flexible and inclusive approach to immigration policy fits well Obama's promise of change while also freeing Maria and millions of undocumented immigrants from the perils and pain of political dualism.