July 29, 2005

McCain-Kennedy Bill Could Work, Says Immigration Reformer

EDITOR’S NOTE: The debate over immigration reform — there are 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. — is about to heat up in the Senate. A bipartisan bill, the “2005 Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act,” sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass), which calls for a path to legalization for undocumented workers, has gained the support of immigrant rights advocates. Rene Ciria-Cruz spoke with Frank Sharry, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Immigration Forum, on the merits of the McCain-Kennedy bill and its chances of passage.

By Rene P. Ciria-Cruz

Question: Why a bipartisan bill at all? Why not a party-line split?

SHARRY: Both left and right have tensions over immigration. The division on the right is more visible these days. On the left, there are those who see immigrants as competing with American workers. Democrats on the whole vote more sympathetically to immigrants. But we’re happy about bipartisan efforts because it’s obvious that Republicans dominate both Senate and the House, and there’s a Republican in the White House. A bill with only Democratic support will not be considered serious.

Q: Does the McCain-Kennedy bill have a good chance of passing?

A: It’s got to be bipartisan to pass and comprehensive to work. We got Sen. John McCain, who’s a maverick, Sen. Ted Kennedy and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a social conservative as co-sponsors. We believe there’s a bipartisan majority for comprehensive reform that could lead to a much better treatment of immigrants. But carving that out, given tensions between parties and the more visible anti-immgrant sentiments in the GOP, will be tough. We’ll give it our best shot.

Q: Is the bill good enough for immigrant rights advocates to support?

A: Here’s what’s needed. A path to legal residency for the workers already in U.S. More family visas to reduce the backlog for reunification. A worker-friendly approach to worker visas rather than old-style guest worker programs that lead to abuse. Smart enforcement that works rather than heavy-handed enforcement that sounds tough but doesn’t work. Programs that help immigrants learn English and become productive citizens. We looked at McCain-Kennedy and, you know what? It basically matches up with the principles we base our work on.

Q: What if McCain-Kennedy gets pulled to the right as a compromise with conservatives?

A: The big question for conservatives is — yes, they want tougher enforcement, and they’re struggling with what to do with the 11 million unauthorized workers here. When they see that McCain-Kennedy offers a path to legalization — even if it will take years and immigrants must go through the hoops, and it really doesn’t give any advantage over the people waiting in line — they think it’s an amnesty program and they’re spooked. Let’s see. If they recognize that a path to legalization is needed, otherwise the undocumented won’t come forward, then that’s good. But if they say, yeah, immigrants can work but then they must go home, well that’s a non-starter.

Q: The bill recently introduced by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is a work-and-return program, or as critics say, a “report and deport” program. Will that fly?

A: The tensions within the GOP could be more pronounced if there’s a hard line that says unauthorized workers have to go home. Who’s most worried about “work and return” is the business community, which is afraid that the most trained workers will have to leave.

Q: So that’s why employer sanctions aren’t working?

A: The interesting thing is, under the current system, both business and labor are opposed to sanctions. If you have a legalized system and take away opportunities for widespread abuse and exploitation by employers, a secure electronic verification system supported by both business and labor could work.

Q: Is the tension on the left over immigration reform coming from unions?

A: The labor movement deserves a lot of credit for changing its position. Are there difficulties with some unions and some members? Yes. Are there low-wage workers who see immigrants as a threat? Yes. Wages haven’t gone up, and there’s an exaggerated perception that some industries are dominated by immigrants. But in 2000, the Sports Arena in L.A. was filled with 20,000 people in a pro-immigrant rally organized by labor. Labor spearheaded the immigrant workers freedom ride, a historic mobilization. Over the last five years labor has moved much more firmly into the pro-immigrant camp.

Q: But an “illegal-immigrant-friendly” legislation is still a tough sell.

A: There is, of course, the sentiment in Congress and the public that the undocumented are lawbreakers and should be punished. It’s easy to say, “What part of illegal don’t you understand.” But if you ask people, “Are we really going to round up those 11 million and send them out of the country?” many will say, “Wait a minute, that’s not very practical or even possible. Besides they work and often have the toughest jobs no one likes. They families, most are law-abiding, let’s get real.” I think we’ve made some progress in the public discussion.

Q: But do we really need more immigrants, although legal, now?

A: We’re not talking about increasing immigration, we’re talking about increasing the legality of immigration. We must modernize the system by recognizing that we have an increasingly integrated labor market with Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean where 80 percent of unauthorized workers come from.

We have a booming service sector. We have fewer Americans to begin with because of lower birth rates, and the native-born are going to college to have jobs that aren’t in the service sector. Our economy is increasingly depending on immigrants — this shouldn’t take place in the black market. It should take place under the rule of law.

Q: How is the balance of forces looking right now for comprehensive reform?

A: To get something passed would take everything going just right — a Senate bill that passes with a big majority, a president that implores House GOP leaders to get real and bring immigration under control. That’s a lot to imagine. But if it doesn’t get resolved by the 2006 elections or 2007, it will be prominent again in the 2008 elections. Despite the odds in the short term, we’re convinced it’s not a matter of if, but when.

If you’re serious in a post-9/11 world, your policies must match with the reality. Most people get that just being tough makes you feel good at first but doesn’t do the job. We have a 21st century immigration reality. We’ve been dealing with it with a 1950s set of attitudes and policies.

Q: How would you like to frame the public discourse?

A: We must confront the American people with the question, “What’s your solution? Instead of complaining about our broken system, let’s talk about solutions. Will your solution make workers come out of the shadows and register with the the government? Will people who would’ve come illegally be able to come legally with rights, labor protection and family members? Will your solution turn a system that’s that broken and rife with illegality and abuse into a system that’s orderly, safe and regulated?

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