Liberal Lion Ted Kennedy Has Died ... What Happens Now with Immigration Reform?

In a USA Today article today crediting Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) for having “fashioned the modern day” immigration system, immigration advocate Frank Sharry pointed out that Kennedy “laid the groundwork” for the sort of humane immigration reform that he had spent much of his political career fighting for, but never achieved. It’s hard to imagine an immigration bill hitting the Senate floor without Kennedy’s binding support, but the truth is he’s already paved the legislative road for its debut and equipped progressives with the guts and principles to see it through.


Sen. Kennedy kicked off his political career in 1965 with a major overhaul of immigration laws that eradicated ethnically-biased immigration quotas that made it nearly impossible for anyone other than Western Europeans to emigrate to the US. “He created Americans,” says Dana Houle of the Daily Kos. After changing the face of immigration, Kennedy spent the next 40 years fighting to change how the nation treated its newcomers. Kennedy helped pass the Refugee Act of 1980 that brought “U.S. law into compliance with the requirements of international law.” He fought with all his might against the harshest provisions proposed in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, described in the Cornell Law Review as the most “the most diverse, divisive and draconian immigration law enacted since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.” In the more recent past, Kennedy cosponsored the DREAM Act to legalize hardworking undocumented students who have lived in the US most of their lives at no fault of their own and the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security (AgJOBS) Act of 2005 to improve the lives of immigrant farmworkers.

Many aspects of Kennedy’s original Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act — which died in the Senate in 2007 — “continue to be the model” for comprehensive immigration reform today. With that said, there are some tough lessons to be learned from what went wrong that year. The final negotiated bill was attacked by both the left and the right, as both sides could point to major aspects of it that they were unwilling to swallow. Mary Giovagnoli says the immigration bill was “met with lukewarm support from many immigration advocates and was pilloried by those on the far right, who turned the Senate’s efforts to find a way out of our immigration mess into a personal vendetta against immigrants.” A small, but vocal minority of restrictionist constituents lit up the phones of Senate staffers who cowered and retreated in electoral fear. Labor was also adamantly opposed to the inclusion of a guest-worker program — something they perceived as a threat to wages, jobs, and immigrant worker rights. Kennedy will be remembered by many as the “master negotiater” and the “stalwart of the Senate.” But in 2007, it wasn’t enough.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is committed to giving immigration reform another shot, and he thinks he stands a good chance at passing it. Much like Kennedy partnered with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on immigration, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) will probably be Schumer’s Republican ally. But bipartisanship can’t just be symbolic. They’ll both have to reach out to conservative Democrats and other moderate Republicans — many who even Kennedy was unable to convince — in order to negotiate the votes needed to pass reform. Most importantly, Schumer will have to balance the delicate interests of business, labor, and immigration advocates, along with conservatives’ demands for harsh enforcement, without losing sight of the compassionate solutions that must be brought to immigrant communities across the country. It helps that the climate is a bit different this time around: immigration advocates are better organized, labor is on-board, the president is more engaged, and Latino voters have made clear that anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from Congress will render vulnerable nativist candidates obsolete. But if Kennedy were still around, he’d probably advise Schumer not to take any of that for granted.

When the 2007 immigration reform bill didn’t pass, Kennedy announced:

We will endure today’s loss and begin anew to build the kinds of tough, fair, and practical reform worthy of our shared history as immigrants and as Americans. Immigration reforms are always controversial. But Congress was created to muster political will to answer such challenges. Today we didn’t, but tomorrow we will.

While some argue that Kennedy’s death has left a “leadership gap,” the truth is his passing has yielded the floor to new voices who are versed in his political skills and progressive agenda. His notable absence doesn’t mean that his legislative triumphs and moral agenda won’t continue to guide the immigration debate closer to a fair and just solution. It would’ve been easier to reach with him, but it must be achieved without him.

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