How Much Longer Can We Wait to Overhaul Our Immigration Laws?

If you take a look around at what is happening in states and localities across the country, the time for immigration reform seems ripe. In 2009 states considered more than 1500 laws concerning immigrants and immigration, and 353 became law in 48 states, according the National Conference of State Legislatures. In various municipalities, countless others were proposed and/or passed. Many of these measures–both restrictive and inclusive–are borne out of frustration with the status quo.

Emblematic of this frustration is the most recent proposal from the Arizona legislature which would criminalize unauthorized immigrants who are present in the state by expanding the definition of trespassing. The bill passed the state Senate several weeks ago, and the House was set to vote on a similar bill this week, but it was tabled at the last minute. If it were to become law, the definition of trespassing would expand to include anyone in the state without legal documentation. It also would require police to determine a person’s legal status if they suspect that they are in the U.S. illegally.   Arizona would be the only state with such a law. The police, fearing that it would undermine their ability to build trust in communities, oppose it.

In a move that is becoming more common on the other end of the spectrum, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett in suburban Washington D.C., just signed an executive order on language access which will require county agencies to translate documents and provide certain services to the population who are limited English proficient (LEP). The county has made a goal of going “beyond federal and state guidelines to reasonably remove any remaining barriers to services for any identifiable LEP community.”

Frustration with the Obama administration over the lack of movement on immigration has grown among immigrant advocates as they see the window closing on reform this year with fall elections looming. After Congress’ failure to reform laws as recently as 2007, the election of Barack Obama renewed hope that this administration would get down to the business of changing immigration policy, including a legalization program for those who lack legal status to live and work in this country. With major obstacles such as health care reform standing in the way of getting the process started, frustrated advocates are planning to hit the National Mall this Sunday to let the president hear directly that they cannot wait much longer.

Advocates with both pro-immigrant and restrictionist views of the issue have valid points that should lead in the direction of reform. Those in favor of the need for better enforcement argue that reform is needed to both bolster border security and to build a reliable interior worksite system to prevent employers from hiring those not authorized to work in the United States. And those in favor of legalization would like a program that allows immigrants who have lived in the United States for a fixed number of years and who are of good standing to apply for legal status and the right to work. 

Those provisions, along with others to better regulate temporary immigrant workers, are the basis of the bipartisan bill being drafted by Senators Graham and Schumer who met last week with President Obama to discuss a “way forward.” With pressure mounting from all sides, it’s time for bipartisan leadership to rise to the occasion and for Congress to take a new bill seriously.