Latinos to Obama, Senate on Immigration: We Voted for Citizenship, Not More Punishment

Latino and other voters across the U.S. welcome and will be enthusiastically engaged in the upcoming national discussion on immigration. Unfortunately, the immigration policy discussion appears to be beginning with a false start: "principles" and legislation from leaders that link legalization of the 11 million undocumented people to increased enforcement and to "border security", a failed and unnecessary approach. At the same time, many of us fear that making immigrants jump through unnecessary hoops to secure citizenship will result millions of the "11 to 12 million" being left out of any possibility to rise out of the shadow of undocumented status.

The national discussion is long overdue, the stakes are high. For more than a decade, many of us have heard the bursts of enthusiasm from Washington about Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) only to end up worse than when we started. We know all-too-well the "trade-off" logic -- legalization in exchange for increased enforcement. As the elections made clear, we're ready to move beyond this logic. Failure to do anything on immigration reform will deepen the abyss of fear and persecution that 11-12 million immigrants face, a situation that is untenable.

In the face of this immigration crisis, the Senate, President Obama and the House must turn away from continuing the failed "tradeoff" approach they are announcing. These officials should heed the will of Latino and other voters, instead of continuing the failed enforcement and "border security" policies that separate families, terrorize children and generally diminish immigrant life, as will result from the "principles" for Comprehensive Immigration Reform being discussed in Washington and Las Vegas and across the entire country today.

Over the past 10 years, Democrats and Republicans have piled on so much enforcement that now we spend more on immigration and than we do on the FBI, ATF and other federal law enforcement efforts-combined, according to former Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization, Doris Meissner. Since 1986, the federal government has spent more than $186 billion on immigration enforcement. At the same time, the FBI continues reporting that crime at the border-one of the primary indicators of "border security" -- remains at "historic lows."

These and other facts point to immigration reform "principles" in Washington that are out-of-step with Latino voters and misguided, at best. Why, then, the continued talk of linking "border security" and increased enforcement with legalization of 11-12 million people, most of whom have committed no crimes?

Following the last election, Latino and other voters expect and demand legalization of 11 to 12 million people. Nothing less. Nobody voted for the kinds of citizenship requirements politicians in Washington are proposing: exorbitant fees, unreadable language requirements, unfair employment verification and other obstacles. According to a 2011 report by the widely-respected Migration Policy Institute, CIR's language requirements alone "could exclude the largest number of unauthorized immigrants, with between 3.3 million and 5.8 million unauthorized adults unable to pass the English language tests contemplated by two recent (Comprehensive Immigration Reform) bills." That is up to six million people left out -- out of the 11 million!

As framed in the immigration reform "principles", this "tough but fair path to legalization" is sure to exclude millions, according to the Migration Policy Institute and others.

With each day that we lack real immigration reform, immigrants in the U.S. will continue to face the unbearable facts of recent immigration history: More than 1.4 million people have been deported, more than 200,000 families shattered, and over 5,000 children are in the child welfare system each year. Because of these failed policies, Latinos are now the largest and fastest-growing group in federal prison. Can we afford to continue this madness? Absolutely not.

The only answer is to return to a more balanced approach aligned with the principles that helped immigrants make the country great. We want our leaders to start the bar raised high, a bar that guarantees that all 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. are legalized.

The time for boldness, leadership and courage on this issue is now. Polls taken after the last election indicate a definitive shift in the country's mood around immigration, with more than 62 percent of voters surveyed in a recent Politico-George Washington University poll supporting an immigration reform proposal that would allow undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship. More than 49 percent of Republicans surveyed support legalization while 74 percent of Democrats did as well. Even key Republican leaders appear to be signaling a willingness to follow the will of the voters as do key Democratic leaders.

As we prepare for this next national debate on immigration, it's important to remember that we finally have the opportunity to move far away from the costly, destructive, and failed enforcement-first immigration policies. In sum, we want more citizens and stronger communities -- not more prisoners, more deportees or more shattered families.