The current congressional debate over immigration reform poses two competing questions: Is offering a path to citizenship to the 11 million men, women and children who bypassed the U.S. immigration system a reward for their illegal conduct? Or, would granting them a citizenship opportunity help bring that sizable population out of the shadows, and allow them to integrate more fully into the American economy and society?
Many Republicans in the House of Representatives are arguing the former. And if that position holds, it could doom the multiyear effort to develop comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate has already passed a compromise bill by 68-32, with bipartisan support. But many in the House are rejecting the Senate’s approach, and share the position of Republican Mo Brooks of Alabama, who told his colleagues, “Anyone who’s come to our country whose first step on American soil is to thumb their nose at American law and violate our law, we should not reward them with our highest honor, which is citizenship.”
Brooks’ position is sheer demagoguery. It should be rejected.
People who are seeking to escape poverty and violence are trying to save their skins and hold their families together. The fact that they didn’t fill out forms, wait in line, or make their escape during regular business hours is understandable, even if it isn’t conduct we want to encourage. Our Jewish community should be particularly sensitive to this issue, and tolerant. Many of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents fled poverty and violence in czarist Russia, fascist Europe and elsewhere, to find a safe haven in the United States. Many of them didn’t observe all of the formalities of the country’s immigration laws. Yet, we are appreciative that they were allowed to stay and make new lives in the goldena medina.
Our immigrant ancestors became proud American citizens, and contributed mightily to this country’s economy and growth. So, why not give the 11 million who are already here a chance to achieve the same dream? And in the process, we can offer those immigrants the opportunity to come out from under the “illegal alien” cloud that hangs over their heads and those of their families and communities.
The Democrats and many Republicans in the Senate seem to get it. And most Democrats in the House do, as well. But House Republicans appear hostile, based largely on vocal opposition from the Tea Party. In fact, a Pew Research Center survey published July 11 found that 82 percent of Tea Party Republicans say granting legal status to undocumented immigrants would reward illegal behavior. And that position is having a profound impact on House Republicans.
Many in the House argue that the U.S. border must be fully secure before a path to citizenship can be opened. Border security is important, and we agree that the issue should be addressed. Ongoing efforts to enhance border security — both through programs initiated by the Obama administration and through the Senate version of the immigration bill — are responsive to those concerns. But there is no really good reason for making a fetish of border security at the expense of the needs of real people. And, in any event, recent studies have shown that the border with Mexico is already largely secure. In addition, immigration across the Mexican border has dwindled in recent years, and may even have reversed. So the concern, while legitimate, may no longer be immediate.
We are a nation of immigrants. Let’s embrace the opportunity to afford a citizenship opportunity to those who are already living with us, and let’s do it with a spirit of generosity and warmth. We urge Congress to pass immigration reform.