The coming battle royal over immigration reform bears some of the same hallmarks as the high stakes slugfest over the passage of the Affordable Care Act—-much sound and fury but so far little substance on which to find common ground.
As the nation’s most populous state, how these clashes play out in California will affect reactions across the country, and the state’s most powerful lawmakers—House Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco)—are once again at the center of the action.
Both Obamacare and the immigration overhaul pits supporters and foes on different sides of the nation’s economic and cultural divides with reform advocates concerned about what are perceived as serious injustices to under-represented groups demanding equal treatment and opponents who just as passionately see them as a threat to their financial well-being that will take jobs away.
Those opposed to health reform argued there was no inherent constitutionally mandated entitlement to governmental protection against illness for millions of uninsured citizens. (It so happens the Affordable Care Act bars undocumented immigrants from buying insurance through state-based exchanges).
Immigration opponents question the legal basis for giving more rights to millions of undocumented immigrants and have made border security the first priority.
Reformers dispute such views on grounds of social equity, fairness and the dysfunction of regulatory systems that are not working well and long overdue for correction.
Neither of these positions adds much enlightenment to an open, full-throated yet informed conversation that is needed before the public can be asked to make sense of all this.
Instead, the battle lines are forming along the usual partisan lines and lawmakers are rushing to take sides before there has been sufficient airing of all the facts that could help inform the decision-making.
Rep. McCarthy of Bakersfield is signaling that his early support for immigration reform may have evaporated. He declared when interviewed some months ago, “I’m on record saying nothing about immigration until we secure the borders. Until you secure the borders, you cannot have the conversation about anything else.”
He is supporting House Speaker John Boehner’s call for a vote by Congress before it adjourns on a bill that, while purely symbolic, would declare President Obama’s Executive Order at least temporarily suspending deportation of undocumented immigrants to be illegal.
Pelosi weighed in with the following statement couched in strong partisan tones:
“Executive action is no substitute for legislation, and the President’s action does not absolve Congress of its own responsibility. Democrats will continue to demand action on bipartisan immigration legislation that will provide lasting certainty to immigrant families, and secure the billions of dollars in economic benefits Republicans’ inaction has denied our country.”
Neither position is likely to lead toward compromise which is typically the most viable alternative when the disputants are this far apart. While these are merely the opening salvos in a contest of wills that will see a shift in the balance of power in January when Republicans take control of both houses, there is little evidence we are heading toward an era of warm and chummy bipartisanship.
A starting point must be acknowledgement of an immigration system that has been rendered inoperable by rules and regulations making it difficult to administer, unequal in its application, overly permissive concerning its most egregious offenders, and unfriendly to many it was intended to serve.
If Republicans plan on a withering holding action until a new president is elected and the current Administration is inclined to just throwing down the gauntlet, the end result is predictable.
Here is what we already know. There is clearly a difference between a path to legalization and another toward full citizenship. The former may be attainable. The latter will take much more time. The solutions lie somewhere in between where the majority of the public is generally most comfortable.
The argument for legalization is fairly compelling when we look at some of the information at hand.
By one estimate from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics—supposedly a non-partisan agency—employing sufficiently larger numbers of immigrants could generate a $1.5 trillion uptick in the nation’s cumulative GDP over 10 years and nearly $5 billion in additional tax revenues in three years.
For those who say this would take jobs away that should rightfully go to others first, many of them do not require skilled labor and remain unfilled, particularly in the agricultural, hospitality, construction, restaurant and hotel, and service sectors. In short, these are jobs involving manual labor rather than sophisticated technology skills, which others do not want to do.
A recent study by the Center for American Progress that looked at correlations between job growth, population trends and the nation’s workforce came up with some startling findings. I will cite only a few:
“Retiring baby boomers will be replaced by immigrants and their children who could account for over 80% of the nation’s labor force growth and change over the next 20 years.” This is according to Steve Levy, along with me a member of the State Workforce Investment Board Executive Committee and one of the report’s principal authors.
Levy is also Director and Senior Economist for the highly regarded Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy based in Palo Alto.
The same report estimates that between now and 2030 nearly 59 million workers will need to be replaced in jobs that span the entire labor spectrum at all experience and education levels from high school to doctoral degree holders. An impressive 40% of this labor force growth is expected to come from new immigrants.
There is substantial indication, however, that jobs may not be the main concern of anti-immigration proponents. Voter empowerment is.
The fact that many of the leading “battleground” states in presidential elections have rapidly growing Hispanic/Latino immigration populations has significant implications both local and national.
California is a solid blue so-called “majority-minority” state with a 40% Spanish speaking population the vast proportion of who are among the state’s 2.6 million undocumented immigrants which account for 23% of the nation’s total.
By contrast, Texas, a solid GOP state with considerable political clout has an equal percentage of Spanish speaking residents. Only New Mexico with a 46% Hispanic population has more with Arizona, Nevada, Florida and Colorado trailing just behind.
The Democratic Party has held sway with many of these voters who are critical to the election outcome in 2016 although its liberal wing is already dissatisfied with Obama’s watering down of immigration reform goals.
Even more puzzling is GOP resistance to any meaningful immigration reform unless it represents just further acquiescence to the Right-wingers—a factor that played heavily in the defeat of Mitt Romney and other candidates in 2012.
A recent Huffington Post entry may provide one answer. The writer explains that, although America is becoming more diverse, congressional districts have been redistricted in such a way so that those with Republican representatives are “overwhelmingly white with relatively few minorities,” with Hispanics constituting only 11% of their populations.
Not that all Republicans are marching in lock-step. Former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, and a potential presidential candidate is quoted as saying the future of the U.S. economy depends on immigrants who he believes have created more businesses than native-born Americans.
Members of both parties might also want to remind the naysayers of the famous incantation by Emma Lazarus enshrined on the Statue of Liberty—arguably the nation’s most iconic monument—welcoming all those to these shores “yearning to breathe free.”
Several facts stand out above all others:
The nation’s socio-economic divide is getting wider and the competition for the Hispanic and minority vote is only going to become fiercer.
Finally, we began as and—with the exception of our native tribes—will always remain a nation of immigrants. No law can change that.