Where’s the Debate on Immigration Reform?

An overwhelming number of business, labor, faith, and civic groups, as well as a strong majority of the American public, a supermajority in the Senate, and a bipartisan majority in the House, all support immigration reform.

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Participants bow their heads in prayer during a demonstration to protest Alabama's new law against illegal immigration in Birmingham, Alabama, June 25, 2011. (AP/Jay Reeves)
Participants bow their heads in prayer during a demonstration to protest Alabama's new law against illegal immigration in Birmingham, Alabama, June 25, 2011. (AP/Jay Reeves)

If ever there were a dream team lineup, it’s the large and dazzling array of those who support immigration reform.

On the business side, everyone from Microsoft and the American Farm Bureau to the Small Business Majority and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is onboard. As for labor—a sector not usually allied with business but allied in this case because of immigration reform’s benefits to American workers—supporters include the AFL-CIO; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME; the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU; United Auto Workers, or UAW; the United Food and Commercial Workers, or UFCW; the National Education Association, or NEA; the American Federation of Teachers; and more.

The lineup of religious supporters is perhaps the longest, stretching from the National Association of Evangelicals to the American Jewish Committee, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Southern Baptist Convention, United Sikhs, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Mormons, and many others in between.

A huge thumbs-up from the American public adds to this hefty lineup. Nearly 9 in 10 Americans support immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. More than 70 percent of Republican voters agree—provided that undocumented immigrants learn English, pay back taxes and a fine, and don’t cut to the front of the line when applying for citizenship.

And if that’s not enough, Republican donors, politicians, and strategists recently sent an open letter to their colleagues in the House of Representatives urging them to pass an immigration reform bill similar to the Senate bill that passed by a supermajority last month.

Why have such disparate groups found agreement on immigration reform? Not too long ago, this was an issue that divided virtually all of them, both internally and externally.

The answer is that facts can be powerful influencers. Here are a few facts that have likely helped some of these groups shift their positions.

Economic facts

Granting legal status to our nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants this year would be an economic boon, increasing tax revenue by $109 billion over the next decade and boosting the cumulative earnings of American workers by $470 billion. This growth adds up to a whopping $832 billion cumulative increase in our gross domestic product over the next 10 years. That is not small change. What’s more, the Congressional Budget Office found that the Senate’s immigration reform legislation would reduce the budget deficit by $158 billion in the first decade following the bill’s passage and by an additional $685 billion in the second decade.

Political facts

America’s racial and ethnic diversity is growing rapidly. White people will become a minority in our country by 2042; in Texas and California, they already have. Republican politicians, donors, and strategists are seeing the demographic writing on the wall. In order to win national elections, they know that they need to appeal to Latino voters, whose strong turnout last November helped re-elect President Barack Obama. One strategic way to do this is to repudiate hateful racist language within their own rank, as when Republicans recently chastised Rep. Steve King (R-IA) for calling immigrant youths “drug mules.” A more long-term strategy is to support immigration reform, an increasing trend among Republicans. After Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX)’s district jumped from 10 percent Latino to 41 percent Latino following the 2010 Census and redistricting, for instance, he switched from strongly opposing immigration reform to supporting it.

Faith and values facts

Many faith communities are on the front lines of the immigration battle. They see up close the suffering that ensues when families are wrenched apart because of harsh deportation policies. They see the indignity of those forced to live in the shadows and their fear of being racially profiled or detained. People of faith live, work, and worship with undocumented immigrants, bringing familiarity and compassion for the injustices they endure. Even conservative evangelical communities that once opposed immigration reform because they claimed it gave amnesty to those who had broken the law are increasingly coming onboard.

Where is the ‘debate’?

Let’s get this straight. An overwhelming number of business, labor, faith, and civic groups, as well as a strong majority of the American public, support immigration reform. Add to that the supermajority in the Senate and a bipartisan majority in the House. The data show strong economic benefits as we gain a vibrant workforce and a leg up in the global economy. And immigration reform is simply the right thing to do.

So where is the “debate” over immigration reform that the media keeps talking about—as if there are equal sides to the issue? Who are the opponents, anyway—other than some Tea Party activists, as well as nativist and racist groups?

Actually, that’s about it. But their shrinking numbers haven’t stopped opponents from yelling at their representatives in town hall meetings this August to shut down the government over Obamacare—and kick out undocumented immigrants too.

If members of Congress have any instinct for self-survival—not to mention intelligence, common sense, and conscience—they should not listen to members of the crazy fringe. Instead, they should listen to the growing tide of support for immigration reform sweeping across the nation, with the clear understanding that its strength and force will drag under those who try to turn it back.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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