It’s time for immigration reform

Comprehensive immigration reform emerged from the shadows last week when Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois and a group of Democratic congressmen submitted a 600-page bill to jump-start the process.

Many immigration advocates praised the opening salvo in what promises to be an epic battle on the order of healthcare reform -- if lawmakers can just be persuaded to turn their attention to the subject. Although President Obama promised on the campaign trail to shepherd immigration reform through Congress, the nation has been focused throughout 2009 on healthcare and the struggling economy, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and climate change; immigration reform never stood a chance.

The Gutierrez bill is a testament to the growing exasperation felt by many champions of reform. Proponents of legalizing the status of undocumented immigrants, many leaders in the Latino and other immigrant communities, and some business interests such as the agriculture and hospitality industries had hoped for a speedy and seismic shift in U.S. policy under Obama. But instead of proposing a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, the new administration has, so far, been even more intent on enforcement than the one it replaced. Its strategy is to win public support for reform by cracking down on illegal immigrants who commit crimes, policing the border and undoing the culture of noncompliance among businesses that depend on illegal labor.

Federal immigration prosecutions jumped 16% in 2009. A record number of people were deported in the last 11 months -- 287,000, including 136,000 criminals. More than 1,500 companies had their employee verification forms audited by Homeland Security -- a 1,000% increase over last year. And instead of halting a controversial program in which local law enforcement partners with Homeland Security to catch undocumented criminals, Obama revamped it to minimize abuses, while expanding it to more departments. Many sticks, few carrots.


Gutierrez’s bill will not be the last word. The bill to watch will come from Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee. Schumer, who has been working with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), has already set out principles for reform that include rigorous workplace and border enforcement, a realistic assessment of the nation’s need for skilled and unskilled labor, a commitment to controlling the future flow of illegal immigration and bringing millions of people away from the edges of society. The Schumer-Graham proposals have promise; we hope 2010 will see the immigration reform the nation so badly needs.