Advocates for comprehensive reform of the United States immigration system expressed new optimism at recent events in Washington. They urged Congress and the White House to work together quickly before the window of opportunity closes.
There is a "fairly narrow window," Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land said Dec. 5 at a summit sponsored by Human Rights First. Advocates have until early 2014, when congressional primaries begin, "to get this done before election politics begins to intrude its ugly head again into this issue," he said.
"The country is hungry for seeing bipartisan agreement in this town, and I think this is an issue where we can achieve it, and we need to do so while we still have this moment," said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
On the same panel, nine-term Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D.-Calif., told the audience, "I do think we have the first real opportunity since I've been a member of Congress. ... and I'd like to have it done by Easter."
Immigration is "a mess from top to bottom, and we need top-to-bottom reform," she said. "I think we have a real opportunity at this point to do top-to-bottom immigration reform."
The optimism comes more than five years after the last push for immigration reform failed despite the efforts of then-President George W. Bush. The November election that reform advocates said demonstrated the increased voting power of Hispanics provides a significant reason for legislative movement in addressing a long-standing problem that has resulted in about 11 million illegal, or undocumented, immigrants in this country.
The calls in the country's capital for a new push to enact reform came amid other developments the same week that provided hope for success:
-- Sen. Marco Rubio, R.-Fla., said Dec. 5 he is "really hopeful we can deal with the issue of immigration holistically" in the next two years "in a comprehensive package of bills," Politico reported.
-- Former President Bush called in a Dec. 4 speech in Dallas for "a benevolent spirit" in addressing immigration, according to The Dallas Morning News. "America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time," said Bush, who has expressed regret he didn't push for immigration reform before Social Security reform after winning the 2004 election.
-- A new study based on U.S. Census Bureau data through early 2011 confirmed illegal immigration has experienced a sustained decline in recent years and there is no net migration from Mexico any longer, the Associated Press reported Dec. 6. The survey showed 11.1 million illegal immigrants in the country, virtually the same as in 2009.
At the Human Rights First panel discussion, Thomas (Mac) McLarty pointed to three factors that have changed in recent years on the issue: (1) border protection is much more serious and efficient; (2) the latest election changed the political landscape, producing a "wake-up call" for Republicans especially, and (3) Mexico's economy has improved.
McLarty, chief of staff for President Clinton and cochairman of a 2009 task force on immigration for the Council on Foreign Relations, also expressed optimism about a new reform effort. "It still has some tough politics to it, no question about that," he said.
Land told summit participants President Obama and leaders from both parties in Congress must provide real leadership "to construct a conscious coalition of the middle -- of the moderate conservatives in the Republican Party and the moderate progressives in the Democratic Party who will wall off the radicals on the right and the radicals on the left who will try to sabotage this."
"t's going to take a disciplined coalition of the middle, which I think represents at least two-thirds of the country, in terms of their attitudes on this issue, to get this done," he said.
Republicans told reporters at a Dec. 4 news conference their party needed to change tactics.
Conservatives and Republicans "have been talking to the wrong crowd; we've been worried about the wrong people; we've been pandering in some cases to a small minority of our party," said Mark Shurtleff, Utah's attorney general.
Brad Bailey, a Houston businessman and co-founder of the Texas Immigration Solution, said, "he vocal minority has hijacked this issue, and we need to fight back."
At the news conference, Hispanic evangelical leaders said immigration is a biblical, moral issue but acknowledged politics is involved. They pointed to the Republicans' need to change if they hope to gain votes among Hispanics.
Exit polling indicated only 27 percent of Hispanics voted for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who had called for self-deportation during the primaries. Pollsters said the Hispanic vote moved four states -- Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico -- into the Democratic column, said Luis Cortes, president of Esperanza.
The Hispanic evangelical church is conservative, but the Hispanic vote "moved away from social values to family values" in the latest election, Cortes told reporters.
"One of every five Latinos knows someone who has already been deported, and they're all members of our family, our extended family. So we voted against self-deportation," he said.
The Hispanic electorate is expected to double by 2030, and Texas and Arizona likely would be the next states to switch party columns as a result, Cortes said. "So at the end of the day, what's in it for the Republican Party is survival," he said.
"If they pass this in 2013, will have three years to redeem the narrative" among Hispanics, Rodriguez told reporters. "If they wait 'til the end of the game, it could be difficult next time around."
Both Cortes and Rodriguez also said Obama must show his commitment to reform.
"The president promised the first-term immigration reform. It did not happen," Rodriguez said.
The Obama administration announced in June an executive action that will immediately permit illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children to apply to be free from the threat of deportation and to seek authorization to work.
"There are skeptics in the Hispanic community saying, 'Was that an act of political expediency or was he really committed to that as it pertains to a moral imperative?' This is his time to prove that wasn't an act of political expediency but rather he is wholeheartedly committed," Rodriguez said. "So what's the president's role? He must be the moral and the national spokesperson for comprehensive immigration reform."
The Dec. 4 news conference featuring religious and business leaders, as well as law enforcement officials, came on the first day of a two-day strategy session attended by more than 250 people. Land and others made visits to congressional offices seeking support for reform legislation.
The coalition organized by the National Immigration Forum cited three consensus points: Recognition of the need for border security and safety in communities; establishment of a just pathway to legal status and citizenship for undocumented immigrants; and modernization of the immigration laws.
On Nov. 13, Land joined nine other leaders of the Evangelical Immigration Table in asking Obama and the leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives to meet with them in early 2013 to discuss a bipartisan solution to the controversial issue.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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