Center for American Progress

President Kicks Off Immigration Reform Surrounded by Lawmakers

President Kicks Off Immigration Reform Surrounded by Lawmakers

Senator Schumer Offers Policy Framework

Immigration reform hit the ground running this week; CAP offers principles that can guide the debate as it moves forward this year.

President Barack Obama talks with members of the press after meeting with members of Congress to discuss immigration on Thursday. (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
President Barack Obama talks with members of the press after meeting with members of Congress to discuss immigration on Thursday. (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Senator Schumer stepped into the starting blocks on Wednesday with a major policy speech that layed down a concrete framework for comprehensive immigration reform. President Obama then rang the starting bell on Thursday when he hosted a widely anticipated closed-door meeting with Members of Congress. The president announced that he has charged DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano with leading a bipartisan, bicameral working group to help negotiate and move a legislative package later this year, and those of us who have been championing immigration reform—and who have been training for this day—are off to the races.

The skeptics and naysayers have invoked a host of specious arguments to suggest that immigration reform can’t move forward this Congress; they claim that the president isn’t committed, the economy is a roadblock, and the public doesn’t support it. Yet events from the last 48 hours should drive those skeptics out of the mainstream and into the margins. Not only can immigration go forward this year, it must go forward.

Politicians in Washington have for far too long lined up in three camps: those who choose to demagogue immigration for illusory political advantage; those who acknowledge the reality of our broken immigration system but fear the politics of reform; and those who understand that solving the immigration crisis with realistic proposals is an urgent national imperative. The tension between these three groups has reinforced Congress’s tendency toward legislative inertia and has stalemated legislative initiatives over the last two Congresses. But on November 4, the American electorate said: Enough!

Americans voted for change and for leaders committed to solving tough problems this past November. Their vote, our vote, blew open new political space that had tightly constricted around the immigration issue in 2007. The immigration demagogues have seen their ranks diminished; the politically cautious have learned that it is safer to solve tough problems than to stick their heads in the sand; and the problem solvers have grown in number and strength.

This is not inside-the-beltway armchair speculation. Broad, intensive public opinion polling on these issues is unequivocal. More than 80 percent of Americans across the country, across party lines, and across nearly all demographic cross-sections, want comprehensive immigration reform that secures our borders, makes employers accountable, and requires undocumented workers to register, learn English, and pay taxes.

In a desperate effort to delay the inevitable, opponents of reform have tried to leverage the economic crisis as a rationale for postponement. These critics, however, have the economic calculus backward: Immigration reform must occur because of, not in spite of, this economic crisis. Real immigration reform will promote, not hinder, economic recovery by creating a level playing field for all workers and employers. Legalization will generate significant tax revenues, close the trap door at the bottom end of the wage scale, and lift the wages of all low-wage workers.

What we cannot afford to do is keep 12 million undocumented immigrants underground or deport them. As CAP’s previous analysis has demonstrated, deporting the undocumented would cost at least $206 billion over five years, or $41.2 billion annually. By way of comparison, the total budget for the Department of Homeland Security in FY 2008 was $47 billion. Instead of continuing to throw money at ineffective policies, we need to reform those policies so that they comport with 21st century economic and social realities.

The White House meeting yesterday demonstrated that the question is no longer whether reform is necessary or whether it can be achieved this Congress. Those questions were answered squarely in the affirmative. The new questions—ones we are happy and prepared to help answer—relate to the negotiation and substance of legislation.

CAP has recently articulated five principles that should serve as guideposts for the immigration debate. These principles are fully consonant with the principles that Senator Schumer articulated in his speech earlier this week. We look forward to working with Senator Schumer and others in drafting legislation that embraces those principles, serves America’s economic and security interests, and upholds America’s most cherished values. As CAP’s President’s John Podesta noted yesterday, "We look forward to working with the president and leaders in Congress from both sides of the aisle to enact immigration reform."

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Marshall Fitz

Senior Fellow