As a Member of Congress from the South Bronx in the 1980’s, and as chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus for four straight years, I was deeply involved with the immigration debate of that time—the Simpson-Mazzoli Immigration and Nationality Act, which was passed into law in 1986. As Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) used to say, the bill was constructed like a three-legged stool—the legs were: employer sanctions against those who hired undocumented persons illegally; a national ID card; and amnesty for those who were in the country without documentation. The idea was you needed all the legs in order for the stool to stand.
The debates we had then over the bill seem almost quaint compared to the heated—sometimes racist—battles that are taking place today over immigrants and immigration reform. As an Hispanic-American, I am very sensitive to the nasty comments being thrown around by Donald Trump about immigration from south of our border. This kind of ignorance is both wrong and dangerous. It’s wrong because it fails to take into account that immigrants make valuable contributions to our economy, and dangerous because scapegoating any group for the problems of society at large splits us apart as a nation at a time when we need to come together.
My general framework for immigration reform has several components:
- We need Congress to pass a bill that treats immigrants to this country as an asset, not a liability;
- We need a bill that makes legal immigration to the U.S. easier and quicker;
- We need to make sure that keeping families together is a pillar of comprehensive immigration reform;
- We need to recognize that many employers rely on immigrants to keep their businesses functioning, so temporary worker programs must protect both the rights and aspirations of these workers;
- We must protect our borders but do so in a humane way;
- We need to deal with the push factor in immigration—the reason people leave their country to come here—and help with development efforts in those countries sending large numbers of immigrants to the U.S.;
- And we must have an amnesty program that provides a path to citizenship.
Hillary Clinton has said that as President she will introduce a comprehensive immigration reform bill that will address the issues I believe are fundamental to such reform, and that will bring immigrants out of the shadows and into the mainstream of American society. Inclusion is the best way to ensure a more secure and economically stable future. Those who feel empowered and part of the American dream are more inclined to be productive citizens and residents.
Unfortunately, getting support for an immigration reform bill will be particularly difficult in the hostile atmosphere created by Trump. It took us several years in the 1980’s to come together and pass a bill that attempted to address that generation’s immigration issues. As a participant in those debates, it was clear to me then, and it is just as clear now, that this must be a bipartisan effort.
Those were different, more civil times. I did not always agree with Senator Alan Simpson, but I always respected him. I knew we could have a conversation about where we could agree and work together. We understood that we had the same goal, to deal with an issue that was important to all Americans in a way that protected the rights and addressed the concerns of all groups.
Much has changed over the last 30 years when Simpson-Mazzoli was signed into law. Today, a merchant of hate and fear is trying to define the debate on immigration reform. The lack of civility and the racist rhetoric by Trump has made immigration reform very difficult today. It has made Hispanics and others victims rather than participants and a source of support for reform. Building a wall doesn’t solve a problem, it creates one. It is one thing to secure our borders, but it is another to treat a group of people as the enemy.
There is also a reality check that has to come into play. We are not going to round up more than 11 million undocumented immigrants and deport them. That is a chilling thought. Rather, let’s think about ways to include immigrants, and make them part of our future.
The good news is Clinton has proven she understands how to work with the other side of the aisle. Her bottom line is to come together to find common ground while never forgetting that immigration reform is not an abstraction. It is about people, their future, and our future as a nation.
We are a nation of immigrants. It is what makes us strong. It is what sets us apart from most other nations—we embrace our differences; we believe there is unity in diversity. Like Clinton, I too look to Abe Lincoln for a source of inspiration, particularly when he asked Americans to be touched by the better angels of their nature. This should be the foundation for immigration reform, and I believe Clinton can provide us with this foundation.