Wanted: Profiles in courage on immigration reform

In the midst of this political crisis on Capitol Hill that has stalemated work on important issues like commonsense immigration reform, I wonder who may be deserving of this venerable award next spring.

We are all too familiar with the story of today’s Washington, D.C. Elected officials are afraid to act -- much less lead -- because they hear the dog whistle from small bands of extremists ordering them to retreat. Or, because party loyalty demands strict adherence to partisan tactics to win the next elections and control of Congress.

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Even when public opinion polls show strong public support for immigration reform -- a complex issue that catapulted to the top of this year’s legislative “to-do” list with the backing of disparate political and community interests -- members of Congress seem too wired for combat to lay down their political and rhetorical weapons and fix the immigration system. Bipartisan cooperation on an issue that should benefit both parties -- not to mention our national economy and communities -- is debased as caving in to the opposition.

Certainly, the Senate made progress this year while the House stalled. The Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of 8” in the upper chamber bravely came together, argued, negotiated, and compromised until they agreed on a measure that deals with all aspects of immigration, including a proposed earned pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the country. An amended bill passed the Senate 68-32.

In the House, immigration reform has its true champions, but the lack of true leadership and political courage among the rank-and-file has slowed down the momentum. As we hear it, soon after the House’s own bipartisan “Gang of 8” became a “Gang of 7,” the top chiefs of the GOP-controlled House withdrew their support of the process.

Instead of a “comprehensive” overhaul, conservative opponents of immigration reform are advancing ugly measures that would place immigration enforcement in the hands of local police, against the best advice of law enforcement agencies across the U.S. They also would target our communities through racial profiling, deny basic human and civil rights, and ramp up detentions and deportations without seriously addressing how to legalize the 11 million people now in our country.

House Democrats, meanwhile, have suggested taking up the Senate’s bill that came out of Judiciary Committee before it was loaded down with a costly and unreasonable border security surge, and attach the border provisions approved unanimously by the House Homeland Security Committee.

That sounds reasonable, but we fear it, too, will get chewed up in the partisan wars already raging over the government shutdown and fiscal issues. The gamesmanship must end.

There are Democrats and Republicans who already agree on commonsense reforms, but they need the courage and encouragement to work together on this issue now, without worrying over whether they have neutralized a political talking point for the next election cycle. And there must be a vote on the House floor on immigration reform with a path to citizenship.

Millions of families in America are counting on this important legislation, as evidenced by the hundreds of marches and rallies held across the U.S. by immigration advocates, including the rally on the National Mall this week. DREAMers and their undocumented parents have courageously come out of the shadows to fight for this reform because they are Americans, except that they lack legal status.

Immigration reform requires several “profiles in courage.” We hope many in Congress step forward.

To let this year end without a desperately needed, commonsense overhaul of our immigration laws would be a shameful chapter in the history of this Congress.

Wilkes is national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.