The promising work of the “Gang of Eight” U.S. senators in pursuit of comprehensive immigration reform now appears to be at risk of losing steam, as political calculations and the realities of the legislative calendar take hold. Failure to pass meaningful reform this year would be most unfortunate. Not only do 11 million undocumented aliens now settled in the United States — including thousands from my home country, Ecuador — need a legal path to citizenship, but American taxpayers need accountability from a system that has left all parties in limbo.
Over the summer recess, key support for negotiations dropped from within the House bipartisan immigration caucus. In the Senate, centrist voices backtracked from the middle ground established by the sensible Gang of Eight proposal. The Congress as an institution has moved on to partisan squabbling over issues like healthcare. And all are thinking about re-election and their party’s national prospects in 2016. Indeed, the energy, goodwill and timing needed for immigration reform seem to be waning.
But the very pressures that seem to be dooming immigration reform this year can be harnessed to ease its passage. For one, there is obvious political advantage to immigration reform. Hispanics were a decisive voting bloc in the 2012 elections, and a huge untapped constituency is up for grabs to those who treat them with respect and dignity. Both parties can surely see advantage in outreach that begins with immigration reform.
The rush of activity that marks the end of the legislative year is a reflection of national mood and priorities. The energy that sparked debate and compromise in the spring can be reinvigorated here in the fall, if we all simply declare that immigration reform is among the vital, unfinished business of the United States.
Ecuador’s embassy and consulates across the U.S. deal with the many thousands of Ecuadorean immigrants stuck in a system that lacks adequate protections or a verifiable path to citizenship. We provide staff and resources to assist them and help them navigate their legal limbo. We hear their stories. We see their hopes for a normal life in which they can provide dignity to their families. We also see their fears of being lost in an intimidating process that, in the absence of federal solutions, leaves the door open for discrimination, racial profiling and harassment.
The status of so-called “undocumented aliens” is what is truly alien to us. The Ecuadorean government guarantees to protect and promote the rights of our citizens at home and abroad. The crossing of a border does not abrogate their fundamental human rights. Here in the U.S., these families are proud, productive and contribute to the tax base. They are not criminals. Their participation in the U.S. is not a zero-sum game.
One year ago, I signed an agreement with then-Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis that committed the U.S. and Ecuador to work together to improve the lives of migrant workers. What a difference a year has made. The optimism of that time, and the victory of the Gang of Eight earlier in the summer, has somewhat dimmed. But what a difference this autumn can make, if we decide that the cause of human dignity is worth fighting for.
Cely is Ecuador’s ambassador to the United States.