There are many good reasons to fix our broken immigration system this year. But there is one reason that may end up driving Congress to act this year more than any other: the growing weariness of lawmakers as the year moves on of battling over immigrants and immigration on issue after issue, something I call the immigration proxy wars.
Our broken immigration system is a national disgrace, yet another terrible vexing governing challenge left over from the disastrous Bush era. Legitimate workers have a hard time getting legal visas. Employers knowingly hire and exploit undocumented workers. Our immigrant justice system is a moral outrage. And of course, the scapegoating of the undocumented migrant has become the staple for right-wing politicians and media, giving them something to rail against as the rest of their agenda has collapsed all around them. It is long past time to fix this broken system and replace it with a 21st century immigration system consistent with traditional American values and the needs of our modern ideas-based economy.
This year we have seen how this national failure has infected debates about other vital national priorities. SCHIP was held up. The stimulus was loaded up with a provision to use our broken and dangerous worker verification system that would undoubtedly disrupt the orderly flow of money to the states. And now Judd Gregg withdraws in part over the coming battle over the Census next year, which we know will include an effort by the right to exclude undocumented workers from the every 10-year head count of those living in the United States. Any future legislative initiative at the federal or state level that confers benefits to a population could conceivably invoke a battle over immigrants: will states require schools receiving school construction money from the stimulus to validate that only legal kids are covered with it? Will families who want to weatherize their homes have to prove their legal status? Will kids getting a laptop in a demonstration project have to prove their legitimacy? And of course, moving on universal health care coverage will require the immigration system to be fixed first. Passing comprehensive immigration reform may very well be the key that unlocks progress on a wide variety of other domestic challenges.
State judicial and law enforcement systems across America are already overwhelmed by the murky problems of our broken and irrational system. Schools and health care providers are desperate to not become an arm of the immigration police. Mexico's drug problems are growing in severity, and will raise the importance of a comprehensive solution to removing any illegal activity from the border region. Next year, the Census is likely to become one long and huge fight about undocumenteds and immigrants if the system is not fixed this year, perhaps even causing years of future battles over the legitimacy of the count if it includes the undocumenteds (which it clearly should). And the proxy wars in Congress and in the states will continue. There is simply no way to duck this one, wish it away. Inaction is not an option any longer. By the fall, the pressure on lawmakers and the President to address a very visible national problem, and the fatigue of battling this out in proxy war after proxy war, will create a climate in which progress on this tough issue I think will be more than possible.
To talk more about this compelling national challenge, come join NDN next Thursday, February 19, for a forum, Making the Case: Why Congress Should Pass Immigration Reform This Year. For those not in DC, we will be Web casting it live and recording it for future review. Stay tuned to the NDN blog for more information about both.
Cross-posted at the NDN blog.