Who Killed Immigration Reform?

It's one of the oldest tricks in the political playbook: When you're in trouble, conjure up a boogey man to distract from your failures and play on voters' fears. This year's targets: undocumented immigrants.

It's not that there aren't real reasons to fix our broken immigration system. And, earlier this year, it seemed that the debate over immigration would actually result in action -- tough, fair and practical comprehensive immigration reform. Led by John McCain and Ted Kennedy, the Senate passed, with bipartisan support, a bill that addressed border security, created a path to earned citizenship for hardworking immigrants already here and acknowledged the realities of businesses that rely on immigrant labor. The measure was fair to taxpayers by asking undocumented workers to pay back taxes before being able to become citizens, and was fair to workers who have contributed greatly to our economy by allowing them to come out of the shadows and protecting them against being exploited.

But the House Republicans had already passed an amazingly callous, enforcement-only bill that would not only make felons of undocumented workers, but would also criminalize soup kitchen volunteers and religious organizations who give humanitarian assistance to the undocumented. People who have lived, worked and paid taxes here for years would be made felons and permanently ineligible to earn citizenship.

In the rants from the far-right, the House Republicans heard a possible solution to their plunging poll numbers. They refused to negotiate in conference with their Senate colleagues, figuring they could score political points by spending August holding "field hearings" that had nothing to do with learning anything new about immigration and everything to do with creating forums to grandstand for local media.

Remember, these supposedly fact-finding hearings were all held after House Republicans passed their version of immigration "reform" -- and the vast majority of witnesses permitted to speak at the hearings held long-documented anti-immigration views. The brazenly political nature of the hearings was even evidenced in their names, like this gem from San Diego: "Would the Reid-Kennedy Bill Impose Huge Unfunded Mandates on State and Local Governments?" That succinctly illustrates the Republicans' objectives: One, obscure the fact that the Senate bill had bipartisan support (hello, John McCain) by naming it after two Democrats; and two, inflaming the debate in hopes of energizing anti-immigrant voters in November.

So-called immigration reforms that focus only on punishing undocumented immigrants or building bigger barricades cannot and will not be effective. We have to also address the economic realities that drive immigration, including the many American businesses and communities that rely on immigrant labor. Already a labor shortage is being felt in the vineyards of California, the lettuce fields of Colorado and strawberry patches in New York. Towns that have succumbed to anti-immigrant hysteria and passed harsh ordinances are already seeing damage to their economies as well as to their spirit of community.

Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., insists on calling the sham summer hearings a success and has continued to push for enforcement-only legislation. But it is clear that enforcement-only policies will not work: There's 20 years' precedent of spectacular failure as proof. In putting down the bipartisan Senate bill, Hastert said that the House Republicans' brief visits to the border during the hearings gave him insight into the border's needs.

But the governors of the four states bordering Mexico -- Republicans and Democrats who know border issues intimately -- recently signed a letter admonishing Hastert for wasting time on hearings that did "little but stir the pot of discontent," and urged Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform before adjourning this year.

America is a nation of immigrants. They come with a willingness to work hard to achieve the American dream: freedom, prosperity and a better life for themselves and their children. We have been immeasurably strengthened throughout our history by welcoming laborers, nurses, carpenters, scientists and academics from across the globe.

Much of the current debate dishonors our history and demeans our values. Let us reject those who are seeking short-term political gain with short-sighted policies, and put our collective creativity and energy to fashioning a comprehensive approach that will both protect our security and reflect our ideals.

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