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Immigration Reform After Bush: Let's Put an End to Punitive Policies

Recent talk about immigration issues coming from Washington inspires some hope, some fear and reveals the need for clarity on the issue.
 
 
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Recent talk about "immigration reform" coming from Washington inspires some hope, some fear and lots of reminders about what I call "political-dualism": the ability of a President or political party to simultaneously communicate opposing policies while delivering either no new policies or exceptionally bad ones.

As the Obama Administration prepares to take the reins of the massive and massively inefficient and broken immigration system, it is important to have clarity about the incontrovertible need to overcome the political dualism that created our immigration mess in the first place.

My first practical experience of lobbying and of political dualism came during the Clinton years. At that time, in the mid-‘90s, I was head of Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), then the country's largest immigrant rights organization. Like many immigrant rights activists today, my colleagues at CARECEN and around the country and I marched and protested and sued and lobbied to end the undocumented status of immigrants.

In one case, for example, we sought to secure legal status for the hundreds of thousands of Central American refugees denied political asylum and other forms of legalization by both the Reagan and Bush I Administrations due to the Republican's politicization of the immigration process. In the end, our many efforts yielded only partial success in the form of what is known as Temporary Protective Status (TPS) granted by the first Bush Administration.

Much like the rising tide of expectations today, the triumphal return of the Democrats to the White House in 1992 brought with it expectations – and official promises -- of an immigration reform, one that would legalize Salvadorans and Guatemalans living under TPS. TPS allows immigrants to work temporarily in the country, but does nothing to remove the specter of vulnerability before employers, landlords and others who exploit immigrants' temporary status for economic and personal gain.

 

Images of my cousin, Maria, crying alone in her room because of oppressive hotel bosses and because of her inability to see her son, who she left and had not seen since he was 3 years old, remain with me as a reminder of the perils and pain of temporary and undocumented status.

I remember how Clinton Administration officials with impressive credentials like Alex Aleinikoff and others charged with immigration matters, told us in un-Republican and friendly terms, that "We definitely want to resolve the TPS issue- but right now is not the right time." Eight years after the Clinton Administration led the Democrats return to power, Maria and other immigrants with TPS saw no change in their legal status. And, now, nearly 20 years since TPS was first instituted, as I watch how Republican rejection and the Democrats’ political dualism have left many TPS holders and more than 12 million other immigrants living under the tyranny of "temporary" and undocumented status, I find myself struggling with my own dualism: believing in the possibility of "real change" inspired by Obama's presidential campaign while also hearing distant echoes of the Democrats’ immigration siren song.

Consider the conflicted and conflicting recent statements about immigration reform made by Congressional Democratic leaders. Asked last month what she thought about the possibility for immigration reform, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded, "Maybe there never is a path to citizenship if you came here illegally," adding "I would hope that there could be, but maybe there isn't." Asked the same question last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid responded in no uncertain terms, "We've got McCain and we've got a few others. I don't expect much of a fight at all." That such mixed messages would come from the Democrats is much more than another expression of the contradictory views often held by members of the same party. Viewed from the vantage point of the recent and not-so-recent and rather twisted history of non-reform has been immigration policy, these conflicting messages sent by the Democratic leadership should be viewed as a more recent variation on the theme of the political dualism that lead us nowhere.

 
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