Comprehensive Immigration Reform and Leadership: Forging an Effective Compromise

Here is the latest installation from our guest-blogger, Robert Gittelson. I was very fortunate to have been invited to participate in a recent panel discussion on Comprehensive Immigration Reform. As the discussion proved to be very illuminating, I wanted to discuss some of the issues that were addressed and came to light, here for the consideration of our informed readership.

The “Full Right for Immigrants Coalition” held an important panel discussion on Saturday, July 11, at the Loyola University Law School in Los Angeles, that addressed the issue: “Towards Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Next Steps.” The public forum called on “organized labor, immigration attorneys, elected representatives, and pro-immigrant rights activists to be a part of a serious political conversation about where the movement goes from here, and how to get to the finish line on immigration reform that fixes the broken immigration system.” I posted earlier about my invitation to speak at the forum here.

I wanted to talk to you guys about this discussion, because in many ways, this forum proved to be a microcosm or precursor to what I perceive will be the greater debate on CIR that will unfold this fall in Congress. I was especially fortunate, in that I was the final speaker in our panel, and that gave me the opportunity to observe closely the audience reaction to the ideas presented by my fellow panelists. In particular, I wanted to start by discussing the presentation of Bernie Wolfsdorf, the President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, (AILA).

First of all, I want to say in the beginning that by any measurable scale, Bernie has to be considered not only an expert in Immigration Law, but one of the leading advocates for realistic and fair CIR legislation. Since the main thrust of my own presentation was on the topic of leadership in this debate, it is appropriate that we discuss Bernie’s role in this debate, and the concepts that he is championing.

Bernie made a very honest presentation, and discussed in particular the roles of the several “pillars” that comprise the basis of the “pro-CIR” coaltion, namely the faith based or human rights organizatons, organized labor, and the business community. Interestingly, our particular audience was well represented by organized labor interests. When Bernie began discussing the importance of the inclusion to our coaltion of the business community, (ie: moderate Republicans), it set off some fireworks in the room.

I personally consider this to be a good thing. It is going to be vital to the interests of the CIR advocates that we iron out our difficulties and differences now, BEFORE this legislation reaches it’s final form that will be presented to Congress. And make no mistake, we do have our differences. There are differences that can and should be settled through compromise, (family squabbles within the pro-CIR coaltion), and then again, there are differences that will never be settled through compromise, or any other way, (ideological differences between advocates that want to fix our broken immigration system, and obstructionists advocating “attrition through enforcement”). Differences between labor and business interests can and will be worked out. However, differences between the true majority advocates of CIR and the obstructionist minority enemies of CIR can not be worked out, and any attempt to do so will lead to the fracturing of the pro-CIR coalition.

The “Southern Strategy” far right Republicans will organize to attempt to defeat CIR. In fact, they have already fired their first, in what will be a series of salvos meant to shatter the pro-CIR coaltion, when they torpedoed last week’s appropriations legislations with a series of anti-CIR “Restrictionist” amendments. Bernie Wolfsdorf explained it this way:

“AILA believes these piecemeal non-solutions do nothing to fix our broken immigration system. Americans deserve real solutions to our problems, not flimsy bandages. We need comprehensive immigration reform that provides realistic legal means to make our immigration system work for us.”

In terms of legislative leadership, it will prove to be vital for the CIR leadership in the Senate, namely Majority Leader Harry Reid, and CIR leader Chuck Schumer, to demonstate organized and effective stewartship of the legislative process to get CIR passed, (unlike the last failed attempt in 2007). The vocal opponents on the minority right, led by Senators such as Jeff Sessions, David Vitter, and Chuck Grassley, will attempt to overrun and monopolize the limited time for debate of this legislation with a series of “poison pill” amendments. I anticipate that if given the opportunity, they will present over 100 of these amendments for consideration on the floor. Each one of these amendments will be carefully calculated to target one of the pro-CIR coaltion members, in order to make it impossible for them to be able to support the final bill, if it includes the poison pill amendment. Each of these amendments will be carefully concealed or disguised as being patriotic and vital to our national defense, thereby attempting to paint anyone who votes against the amendment as being unpatriotic, and weak on defense.

To counter this strategy, Reid and Schumer will need to be tough. They will not be perceived as appearing to be fair, unless they allow some of these amendments to come to the floor. Therefore, they must strictly limit the amount of amendments that they will allow to come to a vote, (which is within their power). Furthermore, they must allow enough time in advance for us, the CIR advocates, to study any amendment(s) to the legislation, and to present to the public at large what these amendments really are about, what they will mean to, and how they will affect our nation’s immigration laws.

For now, we need to get our own house in order. As the lively Question and Answer session at our recent panel discussion clearly demonstrated, there are differences between business and labor that need to be reconciled. To date, the leadership representing these two vital “pillars” of our coaltion are, in a sense, doing what they perceive to be their jobs; namely posturing by staking out unrealistic negotiating positions. However, in order for them to ultimately succeed as true leaders in this debate, they have to work to come together on a final plan, because without agreement between these parties, CIR can not succeed.

I have the utmost respect for the national leaders representing labor and business in this debate, as I believe people like David Bacon and Tamar Jacoby to be important champions of CIR, each in their own way.

David Bacon recently said,

“The AFL-CIO agreed to a position that is much closer to Change to Win’s, specifically to SEIU’s. So you could say that this is the price of unity. But the rationale always given for this by union lobbyists was that this is just political realism. That we are not going to be able to get any kind of immigration reform without the support of the employers, and the employers are not going to support any reform proposals that don’t include guest workers. So this is surrender to that logic. And the answer to that is that we are only going to get what we are able and willing to fight for. And we have to fight for what we really want, not for what we think employers are going to give us. When we go into contract bargaining, we don’t start by offering employers what we think they are likely to agree to. We fight for what we need. We need a reality check and an immigration position that helps us, not our employers, and we have to look for the things that bring us together”.

Not surprisingly, Tamar Jacoby took an opposing position, when she said,

“And yet, even as market mechanisms prove their worth--and as President Obama launches a new congressional debate about immigration reform--a consensus is forming among some experts that a government commission, rather than the market, should set immigration levels. Lawmakers crafting an overhaul should be skeptical. Meanwhile, still other reform advocates, including in the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, have proposed that Congress delegate the job of setting quotas to a commission. A supposedly neutral group of experts would measure labor shortages and make recommendations to Congress--recommendations that would automatically become law unless lawmakers intervened. Can a commission empanelled by Congress ever be truly neutral? Does the economic data exist to measure labor needs, and can it be compiled fast enough to keep up with the economy? Many employers are skeptical, and rightly so."

This squares with what we saw in our own panel discussion. When Bernie Wolfsdorf suggested that business leaders need to be part of the final CIR solution, labor representatives accused AILA of being willing to sign off on the deal no matter what labor provisions were included, bringing up issues dating back to the Bracero programs of the mid 20th Century. Bernie did a very good job of assuring the labor interests that AILA would not sign off on substandard legislation, and would champion the legal rights of guest workers.

This brings me to what I mean, when I talk about leadership on CIR. First of all, as I discussed when I spoke at the panel discussion, if we are to be serious about passing CIR, all of the coaltion members have to understand that nobody can possibly get everything that they want in this CIR bill. The “C” in CIR can just as easily stand for “compromise” as it does for “comprehensive”. However, I also explained that this was a good thing, because in order for the solutions that CIR leaders are advocating to be fair, just, and long lasting, they have to reflect the needs of all members of the coaltion.

It would be wrong to try to pass a CIR that seeks to address the current needs of our society and economy, without addressing the long term ramifications of the bill. I explained that these monumental new immigration overhauls only occur every 25-30 years or so. In other words, our nation has to pass legislation that reflects our best long term predictions for how this legislation will address our immigration needs until well into the 2030’s.

While nobody can clearly read the future, and we do not profess to have any crystal balls about what changes will come over the next two to three decades, we can predict that change will come. The President will ultimately be the leader in the cause that is CIR. However, each of us, in our own way, owes it to society to put aside our own individual priorities, and lead towards a CIR bill that reflects the needs of the greater good that CIR will bring to our nation.

Most of the current leaders working for CIR should understand that this is probably the last major and important CIR legislation that they will actively be involved in putting together in their professional lifetimes. When looked at in that finite context, it will be incumbant upon all of us to work to make this CIR as great and as, well, comprehensive as it could be. For many of us, it will be our crowning acheivement in this field. We have to make this work. Not only must we forge a bill that will become law, we must insure that the final version of the bill will be worthy of our generation’s “best and brightest”.