What accounts for this distrust? The answer is obvious: the federal government’s long-term record is one of highly visible failure.
The lowlight was the bipartisan Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. That law promised to seal the Mexican border, clamp down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, and legalize nearly three million then in the country. For many, this grand bargain became a tragic broken promise, making a mockery of rule of law and cheapening American citizenship. The number of illegal immigrants soared. New industries, notably meatpacking, restaurants and landscaping, joined agriculture in becoming heavily reliant on illegal immigrant labor. Yet the public image of “immigration” is often not of hard-working people tolerating bleak working conditions and low pay, but of news reports showing grainy footage of Mexicans streaming across the border.
Even Obama’s record-setting deportations and unprecedented crackdown on employers have done little to convince restriction-minded voters and lawmakers that the border is or even can be controlled. In this climate, even the targeted legalization bill known as the DREAM Act, which would benefit law-abiding young people who grew up in America and attended college or served in the military, has repeatedly failed.
On Tuesday, Obama hinted—but did not emphasize – something new: change coming from conservative business leaders (he even quoted Rupert Murdoch) and conservative Christian groups as forces for immigration reform.
Why rely on conservative groups? Reformers can learn from the stunning legalization bill passed in March in the deeply red state of Utah. Business and Christian groups in that state re-branded immigration reform as conservative and persuaded the Republican legislature to pass a bill to turn Utah’s illegal aliens into temporary, legal guest workers.
It happened after leaders in the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce witnessed convention business fleeing the restrictionist climate in Arizona for Utah. They saw an immigrant-friendly Utah as good for business. The conservative Mormon church joined the cause because its leaders believed that religious and moral teachings dictated welcoming strangers from foreign lands. Their “Utah Compact” pledged support for business- and family-friendly immigration policies guided by a “spirit of inclusion.”
Utah’s story shows reform is possible when change is led not by government or established immigration reform leaders, but by conservative religious groups with moral clout and business leaders with political and economic power.
The other lesson of the Utah story may be harder for reformers to accept: give up on citizenship as a goal. Unlike his July, 2010 speech, when Obama called for illegal immigrants to “earn their citizenship,” on Tuesday he only said they must “get in line for legalization.” This would be smart political strategy for results-oriented reformers.
The legislators in Utah could not offer U.S. citizenship, but national reformers can learn from Utah’s strategy of providing work visas. For years, reformers sought citizenship for the great majority of millions of illegal immigrants, failing under both Republican and Democratic presidents and Congresses. The DREAM Act’s narrowly-targeted pathway to citizenship has similarly failed. Since 1986, many voters strongly resist the full rights of American membership for people they perceive as lawbreakers. Reformers in Washington can follow Utah by providing people without papers with a work- or family-related visa.
Arguably, this is simply kicking the can down the road if these visas are made temporary. But as Obama said on Tuesday, most immigrants come to the U.S. to find work. This lesser prize protects workers from exploitation and American wages. Most importantly, it may break the congressional logjam, making other badly needed immigration reform – such as allowing more foreign talent, streamlining the visa process, reforming temporary visas for tech and agricultural workers—finally possible.
John D. Skrentny is Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies and professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego and a contributor to Reaching for a New Deal: Ambitious Governance, Economic Meltdown, and Polarized Politics in Obama’s First Two Years.