There is much to cheer in Washington’s rapid re-commitment to immigration reform, not least of which is the way it affirms some basic tenets of democracy. A large voting bloc makes itself heard on election day, and the system eventually responds, just as it did for the Irish and women and the anti-Vietnam War movement and gays.
In November, President Obama won 71 percent of a Latino vote that itself grew by 4 million since 2008, a number big enough for even Rush Limbaugh to see. Bob Menendez of New Jersey — one of the bipartisan group of eight senators who announced a framework for legislation this week — put the argument for action succinctly: “First, Americans support it. Secondly, Latino voters expect it. Thirdly, Democrats want it. And fourth, Republicans need it.”
But as with any legislation, the diablo is in the details. The proposals include a mix of carrots and sticks: tougher enforcement alongside a roadmap to lead undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. Getting the balance right, in a logical sequence, is crucial.
For example, both the Senate framework and Obama’s own principles require undocumented immigrants to learn English in order to obtain permanent residency status, the first step on the “path to citizenship.” It’s important that immigrants learn English, for their own advancement as well as for social cohesion. But there are at least 12,000 people on waiting lists for English-learner classes in Massachusetts alone, according to the state’s immigrant advocacy group, MIRA. “The requirement sheds a light on how woefully underfunded our system is already,” said Claudia Green, director of English for New Bostonians, a partnership with MIRA and the city. “This is going to make the need even more acute.”
A Boston Foundation Report last year estimated that 490,000 Massachusetts residents have limited English proficiency. Most are from Spanish-speaking countries, but those from Portugal, Haiti, and Vietnam are close behind. Any law that includes an English language requirement also needs to include the resources to hire and train tens of thousands of instructors; otherwise it’s just an unfunded mandate.
Even legal immigrants face a bureaucratic maze that is lengthy and expensive.
Another hurdle: Some lawmakers are insisting on secure borders, not only as a companion to the path to citizenship, but as a precondition. That can make the wait unacceptably long. The Obama administration has proven its enforcement mettle: The Migration Policy Institute calculates that the government spent more on immigration enforcement agencies last year ($18 billion) than on the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives combined.
In fact, after years of “enforcement first,’’ most of the benchmarks established in previous bills have been met. Deportations have soared under Obama’s administration. And migration into the country has declined so sharply that illegal border crossings are now at net zero, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Ultimately, the immigration issue is about families — keeping them together, healthy, and productive. Miguel Leal came to the United States when he was 10. He speaks excellent English and works for a neighborhood center in Fitchburg. Because he is from Cuba, a country with special immigration status, he easily became a US citizen. But his new wife is from Uruguay and doesn’t yet have legal papers. Miguel lives in fear that she will be deported and his 4-month-old son will grow up with a single parent, as he did. “I work hard to keep my family united,” he said. “The threat that we can be separated over the status on a paper is devastating to me.”
Leal’s mixed-status family is not unusual, and their situation underscores how fragmented and absurd the system can be. Even legal immigrants Leal works with face a bureaucratic maze that is lengthy, complicated, and expensive. “Not everyone is so rich as the people who sit behind the seats in Congress,” he said.
The time is ripe to bring millions of honest, ambitious immigrants more fully into American society. This delicate moment shouldn’t be squandered by piling on unworkable new demands. “We don’t want to create a semi-permanent underclass of people for whom citizenship is a goal that’s forever moving further into the distance,” said Kica Matos, Director of Immigrant Rights at the Center for Community Change, a Washington advocacy group.
Just so. The details will determine if this time, immigration reform creates a path to citizenship, or a roadblock.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.