Immigration: You Cannot Do Nothing

Before Congress left town in November, two teenagers interrupted Speaker John Boehner's breakfast. As he ate, they asked what he is doing to ensure that they and their families will not be deported. Then, the week of Thanksgiving, an undocumented student who has lived in the U.S. since age eleven interrupted President Obama's speech on immigration to ask when he would stop the deportations that are splitting up families. These undocumented youth are American in every sense of the word -- including the confidence with which they speak their minds -- but they don't have papers. Many politicians are learning what I have known for years: you cannot go anywhere without hearing about the devastation caused by two million deportations.

We harm ourselves every day when we deport 1,100 people. We put U.S. citizen children in foster care or the care of others or we send them out of the country. A generation of kids has grown up with the threat of deportation of mom or dad.

It is unsustainable and creates a sense of urgency around the immigration issue that, unfortunately, does not seem to register here in Washington.

My friend Eliseo Medina and others embarked on a fast in November ( to impress the urgent need for an immigration reform vote in the House of Representatives. They put their health on the line because a moral and just cause requires sacrifice when comfortable politicians seem content with inaction. But the country cannot afford to let the immigration crisis fester.

Especially when the solution is so close at hand. I have said for months that the votes exist in the House for fair and sensible immigration reform that legalizes the undocumented and keeps families together. If the Speaker gives us a vote, we can fully implement E-Verify, protect our borders, reduce illegal immigration, strengthen legal immigration and heal our families.

But eyeing next November, Republicans -- and some Democrats -- have already done the math and so far, the do-nothing approach is winning. So let me explain the political mathematics as I see them.

Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats will win any favor from the American people by doing nothing. It is still true that two-thirds of the American people favor immigration reform that legalizes people and allows them to eventually apply for citizenship.

Still, many politicians are reluctant to vote 'yea' on any immigration reform bill because they worry such a vote will cost them in a primary or a general election. They are wrong. But OK; we don't need their votes. Every Republican and Democrat who believes immigration reform will hurt their districts can vote 'nay' and we still have 218 votes for the reform this country needs and deserves.

Immigration aside, many Republicans feel they were sent to Washington to prevent the President from getting anything he wants. Their political slogan can be summed up as "Vote for us so we can stop POTUS." Despite votes from a third of the Senate Republicans, the authorship of key Republican leaders, and the support of business, evangelical, and conservative leaders across the country, immigration reform is seen as something the President wants and therefore something that must be prevented by House Republicans.

Fine. We know you are against the President. Tell us what you do want. I think there is substantial room for compromise on immigration in the next few weeks and certainly the next few months. If it helps you politically to define it as a series of incremental steps and a rejection of the Senate plan, so be it. You can dress it up with enforcement measures, as long as it doesn't actually undermine public safety. And you can call it the "Anti-Obama Immigration Reform Act" if that is what it takes. But you cannot do nothing.

When I think about the urgency of immigration reform, I think about the young people who interrupted the President and the Speaker and the clock that is ticking on their lives. I think of the Fast4Families fasters on the Mall and their sacrifice. But most of all I think of a father who came up to me recently and said:

"Find my papers. Don't let my deportation widow my wife or orphan my children. My children will remember who treated their parents badly and will punish them with their votes. But right now, I need my papers."

Politicians in both parties should think about that man and find a way to do what he asks.

This article originally appeared in The Hill ( on December 3, 2013.