On the Politics of Immigration Reform


The media loves to attach political labels to often complex issues. Such monikers allow the press to create and define highly charged terms ("pro-life"; "pro-choice"; "pro-gun"; "anti-gun", etc.). The exercise is also useful for keeping score, and there is nothing the press likes more than keeping track of who's ahead and who's not.

The intense debate surrounding immigration reform is only the latest example of the phenomenon.

Similar to "Mom", "apple pie", and "baseball", the concept of "comprehensive immigration reform" scores quite high in national polls. Yet, this generic label has quite different meanings across the political spectrum.

For conservatives, increased border security remains a threshold issue. At a minimum, this group demands the ratcheting up of all available border control measures, a process viewed with great suspicion by more liberal members. For this latter group, Republican insistence on tougher border measures makes a comprehensive deal far more difficult.

Equally thorny is the issue of back taxes. Many GOPers believe that passage of an immigration bill will allow the party to move on with its immigrant outreach efforts. (Recall Mitt Romney lost the Asian and Hispanic vote by lopsided margins.) But requiring off the books, undocumented workers to pony up is a "too rigid" approach according to Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, a member of the bill writing "Gang of Eight." Democrats also point out that a punitive approach to the issue would discourage illegals from coming out into the open - the central thrust of the bill.

Perhaps the most generic of the immigration buzz phrases - "a path to citizenship" - is also the most fluid. The respective arguments are familiar: Republicans wish to build a gauntlet of intermediate steps (criminal background checks, paid up back taxes, English proficiency) before creating a "path to legality" - which might lead to a path to citizenship - after those who previously got in line and followed the law are processed. Not surprisingly, most Democratic Members desire a less intensive process and more immediate path to actual citizenship.

The bottom line: a serious immigration bill is a necessity for a country with 12-15 million illegal aliens. But beware conceptual agreements based on generic words and phrases from 10,000 feet. It is the closer to the ground, nitty gritty policy calls on taxes, visas, and citizenship that will ultimately determine whether the country makes a giant leap forward. Hopefully, national security and cultural necessity will win out in the end.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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