When Samuel Rodriguez speaks of Arizona these days, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference invokes Charles Dickens: "It's the best of times and the worst of times."
Even for those outside Arizona, it's not hard to find the worst: Proponents of the state's new and controversial immigration law say illegal border crossings and crime are out of control (see "Land without law," by Megan Basham, May 22, 2010). Opponents of the law-including Rodriguez-say the legislation will lead to racial profiling and abuse. Rhetoric runs hot on both sides: In a Washington Times editorial, Ted Nugent called opponents of the law "Democratic numskulls" and "weasels." At a pro-immigration rally in Dallas, some marchers carried signs depicting Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer as a Nazi, suggesting the immigration law she signed will lead to Gestapo-style tactics.
Still, Rodriguez thinks the worst of times could lead to the best result: "It will force the federal government to face immigration reform."
President Barack Obama promised Hispanic supporters he would produce immigration reform during his first year as president. He didn't. Now, voters on both sides of the immigration debate are demanding the federal government do something about a problem that isn't going away, even as lawmakers hedge on an issue they find politically volatile. Republicans don't want to alienate conservatives, and Democrats don't want to alienate moderates. But neither group wants to brush off Hispanics, the largest minority group in the country.
The volatile issue divides the usual foes, but it also divides common allies, including conservatives. Some conservatives oppose any pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, calling such concessions amnesty. Other conservatives-including a number of prominent evangelicals-support what they call a more realistic approach: Punish illegal immigrants with fines, require them to assimilate by learning English, and let them get in the back of the line for citizenship.
Meanwhile, others call for a better program for temporary workers that could encourage legal entry and help U.S. businesses. For example, farmers who hire foreign workers for seasonal labor through legal channels say the Obama administration has complicated the visa process and made following the law more difficult than ever.
Ron Gaskill says most farmers want to comply with the law. Gaskill is an immigration specialist at the American Farm Bureau (AFB) and a member of a farming family. He says many growers looking for outside help to harvest crops apply to hire workers through the U.S. Department of Labor's H2A visa program.
The program that issues temporary visas to foreign workers has long been complicated, but growers found some relief through Bush administration reforms that streamlined the process in 2008. (The edited process reduced some of the bureaucratic hoops, but still carried requirements to protect foreign workers and required that farmers advertise extensively for domestic help before hiring foreigners.)
The relief was temporary: The Obama administration quickly re-instituted the old restrictions, saying the changes would raise wages and better protect workers. AFB filed suit to stop the changes, but a U.S. District Court judge in North Carolina upheld the rules in February. Gaskill described the results: "What you have now is a program that is the most administratively difficult ever for an employer to use."
The difficulties include a wage floor that can change monthly, complicated paperwork, and timelines for approval that don't always coincide with farmers' harvesting schedules. Gerry Addington of Growers Labor Services, a Houston-based labor contracting firm, told a California newspaper that since the changes took effect in March, his company had seen a 40 percent drop in requests for H-2A visas: "In some cases, the growers may be forced to go back to what they had done in the past, which is hire illegally."
While farmers do have a choice in hiring practices, Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute calls the current system "a nightmare" and says a better process for temporary worker visas would encourage legal immigration. He points to the 1950s when Congress beefed up border enforcement and dramatically expanded the visa program for immigrants: "Apprehensions at the border dropped 95 percent."
Expanding a temporary worker program for farm workers and other laborers is part of a bipartisan plan proposed by Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. The pair penned an op-ed in the Washington Post in March calling for comprehensive immigration reform, including more visas.
By April, Graham said he wouldn't support immigration reform this year and balked at Democrats' plans to push an immigration bill ahead of climate change legislation. He threatened to pull support for both, saying climate change should come first.
But Graham also faces pressure from constituents and other conservatives who call him "Graham-nesty" for his proposal to allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country. Graham says his plan doesn't grant amnesty but requires illegal immigrants to "admit they broke the law and to pay their debt to society by performing community service and paying fines and back taxes." The plan calls for background checks and requires English proficiency "before going to the back of the line of prospective immigrants."
Some wonder if that plan is enforceable without major overhauls to the current system to track immigrants entering the country. The Obama administration has encouraged the E-Verify program that allows employers to check a potential employee against a database to find out if that person has legal status to work in the United States. But the administration has scaled back other enforcements, including a Bush practice of issuing "match letters" that informed employers if their employees were using false Social Security numbers.
The conservative Heritage Foundation has called on the Obama administration to begin reform by securing the U.S. borders, saying all other reform hinges on border security. A March report by the group called Graham's plan for a pathway to citizenship for illegal citizens "amnesty."
Richard Land agrees on border security, but he disagrees that Graham's plan represents amnesty. Land is the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination that called for immigration reform in 2006. Land says he doesn't support amnesty, but he says those who call paying a fine and meeting a stringent list of requirements amnesty "need a course in remedial English. Amnesty is getting off scot-free."
Land is one of several conservative evangelicals, including Rodriguez, Jim Tolle of The Church on the Way in Los Angeles, and Mat Staver of the Liberty Counsel, who have called for immigration reform that would provide a way for illegal immigrants to pursue legal status. "We're not going to round up 12 million people and send them home," said Land. "So we have to deal realistically with the people who are already here."
Rodriguez agrees and calls for a "just integration strategy" that includes fines, English classes, and "going to the back of the line." He hopes more Republicans will support such efforts and warns that the GOP is alienating a major bloc of socially conservative voters: "This community is really poised to serve as the firewall against extreme liberalism. . . . But only if the Republican Party gets it right on immigration reform."
Political considerations aren't the only reason to act now. A less intuitive reason: Illegal immigration may be declining. The Center for Immigration Studies estimated that the number of illegal immigrants in the United States dropped by 14 percent from 2007 to 2008. The Department of Homeland Security estimated that the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States dropped to 10.6 million in 2009 from 11.6 million in 2008, the sharpest decrease in 30 years.
Those statistics are hard to verify, but many experts agree that the immigration downturn flowed from the economic downturn: Unemployment rose to more than 10 percent in December 2009. Fewer jobs here likely sent more immigrants home. Whatever the reasons, one thing is clear: If the economy improves and immigration policy doesn't, illegal immigration will likely soar again.
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