New Arizona law calls for Congressional action

The law Arizona passed catapulted immigration back into the headlines. What had started as a strategy to help reelect the governor and promote ex-Rep. J.D. Hayworth’s Senate bid to unseat John McCain has now become international news. The underlying policy is a gimmick, albeit one with serious consequences. Crime is down to historically low levels, immigrants commit fewer crimes than the U.S.-born, and Phoenix is one of the four safest big cities in the U.S. Yet the law adds new burdens on local police, exposes officers to nuisance lawsuits, and will make the Hispanic community – about 30 percent of the population – reluctant to interact with cops, even when they are victims or witnesses.

But the voter frustration that makes the Arizona law so popular is very, very real. Congress has been talking about ending illegal immigration for a decade, but has done little to actually fix the problem.  

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So, does the popularity of the Arizona approach mean comprehensive immigration reform has been rejected? Actually, the opposite is true.  

Public opinion polls indicate that while support for the Arizona law is high (61 percent approval in an NBC/MSNBC/Telemundo poll released May 26), the same percentage (60 percent) support comprehensive immigration reform that combines border security with workplace enforcement, legal immigration, and legalization for undocumented immigrants (65 percent support earned legalization).  More importantly, a bipartisan poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Lake Research for America’s Voice, shows that people who support the Arizona law are more likely to support comprehensive immigration reform than other voters. Supporters don’t think the Arizona law will reduce crime (only 12 percent did) or reduce illegal immigration (28 percent), but more than half (52 percent) say they support it because it sends a signal to Washington.

The American people want action, and they want law and order restored to the immigration system. My fellow Democrats, we are in the rare position of supporting the policy the American people see as the pragmatic, law and order approach to the immigration issue. Now we must be brave enough to fight for it. Where Republicans see voter frustration and want to exploit it, we should be smart enough to respond to voter frustration by solving the problem that frustrates them.

Americans know trying to drive out 12 million undocumented immigrants is not going to happen. Most immigrants are not leaving on their own, no matter how tough we make it and we simply will not get rid of a population about the size of Ohio (or their 4 million U.S. citizen children). They will not magically disappear. So an immigration policy based on a fantasy no longer flies. It has no credibility. The American people want a different, more realistic solution.

Voters also know the problem is bigger than the border and bigger than Arizona. Fifty individual state immigration policies is a recipe for further chaos. We need a federal approach, but so far, we have taken shortcuts: throwing money and personnel at the border. That is good for press conferences – or campaign ads – but it doesn’t solve the problem, and we have 25 years of evidence that proves it. I am for more border security resources and it is in my bill. But since I took office in 1993, we have increased the manpower at the border five-fold and the budget ten-fold. That alone has not secured the border and regulated immigration, and John McCain used to know that.  

Voters want immigrants to play by the same rules they have to play by. They support legal immigration and – wrongly – assume most of the people here illegally could have come legally but chose not to so that they would not have to play by those rules or pay their fair share.  Now they want immigrants to get legal, pay fines, learn English, submit to criminal background checks, pay all of their taxes, and become citizens. We should honor their hard work and recognize them as part of our society. One side hopes to derail any proposal by calling that amnesty. Our side – and the vast majority of Americans – calls that the only logical way forward.

Remember the second grader who whispered to First Lady Obama that her mommy had “no papers” and that she feared the president would send people to take her mommy away? That moment crystallized what we need to do. I want that mom to register with the government, learn English, pay a fine, and get right with the law.  I want her protected by our labor laws and able to raise the best little American girl she can. And when that little girl grows up, she will remember that her country stood by her and her mom and she is going to be the best American citizen she can be.

The Democratic approach is the common sense approach that establishes law and order and holds people accountable, precisely when most Americans are demanding a solution to end illegal immigration. That’s a rare political confluence that can only be squandered if Democrats fail to act.  

The American people – including the supporters of the Arizona law and that second grader – are waiting for answers. Political shortcuts, stalling and unrealistic approaches will not do.

Gutierrez is a member of the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law.