March 1, 2006

Fixing the Broken Immigration System

A coalition of organizations is working to make reform a reality.


In this nation of immigrants, it seems that Americans always can count on a vigorous, often emotional, debate on immigration policy. And it seems that Hispanic Americans, though the majority of us are not immigrants at all but natives of the United States, can count on being at the center of that debate.

You only have to turn on your radio or television to see that debate in full force today. And what you hear and see on the airwaves should give you a good idea about why Hispanic Americans care about the immigration issue so much. Perhaps more than any other group of Americans, we of Hispanic heritage are painfully aware that the nation has a broken immigration system that badly needs to be fixed. We are aware because an average of one person dies every day attempting to come to the United States by crossing the desert or being smuggled in a rail car. Some of those who perish have American spouses or children, but no access to legal status themselves. And many of them have names like mine.

We have great compassion for those who come here seeking a better life and we are greatly aware of how much our country depends on them. Anyone who eats at a restaurant, stays at a hotel, passes by a construction site on their way to work, or has their office cleaned at night should also be aware of how much they depend on an invisible immigrant labor force. There is a lot of attention focused on immigrants who are here illegally, but if we’re truthful, we have to admit that we all participate in our nation’s broken immigration system.

It is a mistake to assume that Hispanic Americans’ compassion for immigrants translates into a desire for lax immigration policies. Indeed, the opposite is true; it is unsustainable and unacceptable for the United States to continue to rely on workers who must risk their lives to get here, and then live in the shadows, fearful of contact with civic authorities even as they do work which sustains the rest of us. It is long past the time for comprehensive immigration reforms that will standardize the process and ensure that all immigration to the United States takes place legally. We are a nation of immigrants, but also a nation of laws, and reforms that truly reflect these values are long overdue.

The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) has been working for years with a broad coalition of organizations to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality. You might recognize the names of some of our partners. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Service Employees International Union and the National Restaurant Association are among them. It is an unusual set of allies from across the political spectrum. Together we are working to create a rational, thoughtful dialogue, to move the debate in a way that generates a little less heat and a little more light.

It isn't easy. But in a time of highly charged partisan politics, this coalition of unusual partners has crafted legislation that has bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. Senators John McCain, R-Arizona, and Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, have teamed up on a bill with a bipartisan group of sponsors in the House of Representatives that would comprehensively reform our broken system. These bills combine tough enforcement with a realistic approach to the 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in our country, since no rational analysis advocates rounding them up and sending them out. Instead, this legislation creates a path to citizenship—an orderly process that allows immigrant workers to come out of the shadows and earn their way to permanent status over time. It also builds on President Bush’s idea of a guestworker program by creating a legal path for a limited number of workers to come in the future. The legislation’s sponsors hope that such a bill can pass, creating a more rational system that ensures that immigration in the future will be legal and orderly—a system that will finally have a measure of fairness and control.

This approach poses a sharp contrast to legislation which recently passed in the House of Representatives. The House bill attempts to reform immigration by criminalizing immigrants who are working hard and paying taxes, and subjecting those who help them o criminal penalties as well. By building a 700-mile fence along the border, and by making life as hard as possible for immigrants, their families and the larger communities they are a part of, the House bill appears to be an attempt to send a “get tough” message more than a rational effort at reforms that can work. It is clear that this debate will lead to a tougher approach at the border. For NCLR and its coalition partners, the larger question is whether we can reform the law in a way that creates legal paths for those who enter illegally, and provide a rational solution for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already living among us. NCLR believes an enforcement-only approach will fail to get our system under control. We are working instead in a bipartisan way to create a set of laws that our enforcement officers can actually enforce.

Even if we are successful in moving an immigration reform debate forward, our work will be far from over. A far larger part of NCLR’s work focuses on the integration of immigrants—and all Hispanic Americans—into the mainstream of America’s economic and civic life. The real measure of our success as a nation is the extent to which we succeed in creating opportunity for everyone, whether they are immigrants or Americans whose roots go back many generations. This means that, even as we at NCLR work toward immigration reform, we are deeply engaged in the work of improving the quality of education in America, expanding access to health care and strengthening neighborhoods and communities across the country. Hispanic Americans have a stake in all of these debates; my job is to make sure that our voice is heard in all of them. I believe that if we do our job well, we will strengthen not only the Latino community but the nation as a whole.

Janet Murguía is president and CEO of the Hispanic advocacy group National Council of La Raza based in
Washington, D.C.