As we begin to feel the effects of the recent partisanship-induced sequestration, the American political system seems to be utterly incapable of cooperation and compromise. A shutdown of the federal government is possible later this month; another debt ceiling battle looms on the horizon in May. We seem poised to bounce from one frustrating crisis to another, with little hope for cooperation between Democrats and Republicans.
Yet alongside these dispiriting developments, bipartisan cooperation is under way on another important issue.
Lost in the gloomy headlines of the past several weeks, there was a rare instance of cooperation in a sketch for comprehensive immigration reform, reached by prominent U.S. Senate Democrats and Republicans. Accompanying the plan is an ambitious timeline. Legislation will be introduced by early April, move through the Senate, and the hope is that the package is brought to a vote in advance of the August recess in the House.
This tentative outline lays out four main objectives: creating a path to citizenship for at least some of those in the U.S. illegally; ensuring a more effective employee verification system; fine-tuning of immigration enforcement to meet economic needs while also protecting immigrant children and families; and devising a system of admitting future workers on a temporary or conditional basis.
Immigration reform is badly needed. Prominent attempts at comprehensive reform in 2006 sparked massive protest by mistakenly treating immigration solely as a security issue. Immigration policy is not simply about longer, more secure fences or more Border Patrol agents. It’s about finding ways to harmonize border security with humane policies that are fairly enforced. In addition, it’s about devising policies that recognize the benefits that flow from immigrant communities to the American economy, our society and our culture.
This particular reform push presents a rare opportunity in which there are strong incentives for politicians and lawmakers in both parties to reach agreement, ideally before the 2014 midterm elections. Prominent Democrats have been pledging to successfully broker an immigration reform package for years. In fact, President Barack Obama pledged to bring about comprehensive reform in the initial year of his first term. Thus far, Democrats have been unable to deliver.
Among Republicans, the last presidential election was a frightening wake-up call. Mitt Romney captured just 21 percent of the Latino vote, and Latinos shifted the balance in key swing states such as Florida, Ohio and Colorado. The Latino electorate is projected to double in the United States by 2030. If the Republicans cannot begin speaking to Latino voters on issues that matter to them, such as immigration, they will suffer stinging electoral defeats in years to come.
While successful bipartisan cooperation in Washington would help shore up many Americans’ beleaguered faith in their political system, this issue has practical importance for Maine. Maine has a significant and rising percentage of immigrant business owners, workers and students, who contribute millions of dollars to our economy and enrich the diversity of our communities and our state.
A recent report on Maine by the American Immigration Council put it best, stating that “at a time when the economy is in a slump, Maine can ill-afford to alienate an important component of its labor force, tax base, and business community — especially since the state’s population is aging rapidly and growing number of retirees are depending on a declining number of workers.” The report vividly details the ways in which immigrant populations are already positively shaping Maine’s future.
While immigration reform has a difficult path ahead, particularly in the House of Representatives, we must praise and support those lawmakers willing to engage in the difficult business of negotiation and compromise on this important issue.
Robert W. Glover is the CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Political Science at the University of Maine where his research focuses on the politics of immigration in the United States. He is a member of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.