Florida politics haunts immigration issue

As the U.S. Senate considers the bipartisan S 744 immigration bill, the light is shining on Sen. Marco Rubio to lead enough fellow Republicans to support modernizing our immigration system. The stakes are high for all involved.

The last elected predecessor in his Senate seat, Mel Martinez, resigned from office after fellow GOP members refused to support his immigration efforts. Being chair of the national party at the time did not help Martinez. Rubio’s future aspirations may be equally problematic now as an often-named front-runner for 2016.

The larger question for the political right is this: Why should voters of Latino and Asian descent affiliate with the right if two successive Cuban Americans on that side fail to convince their fellow senators to support immigration reform?

This is the political question that haunts the immigration issue in Florida. Nearly one in four Floridians is Hispanic and more than 62 percent voted in 2012. These numbers increase with each election. Immigration reform will surely be a swing issue in future elections.

Yet one only has to look at the range of amendments to the bipartisan Senate bill proposed by conservative senators to understand how far they are estranging themselves from voters. The effect of their amendments would be to lock the border as tight as possible and severely limit the number who qualify for citizenship.

Such a two-pronged approach means the majority of the 11 million aspiring Americans will be trapped inside a country that has hired private prisons to detain them when caught. Who pays for this suffering? The American taxpayer.

Last year we spent $18 billion for border and customs security — $4 billion more than all other federal law-enforcement agencies combined. The taxpayer is being deceived. These funds flow into private corporations and expensive detention centers while being used to remove parents from their children and instill fear in communities of hardworking, decent Americans.

We need to control our borders and to set appropriate qualifications for citizenship. But if only a fraction of aspiring Americans receive citizenship, then immigration reform will become a monstrosity, which fuels budgets and profits for an incarceration system but doesn’t put the nation on the right path to actually fixing our immigration system.

Such an outcome repudiates American values of family, freedom, and responsibility.

Getting control of the border doesn’t mean fences — we’ve been there, done that. It requires instead addressing the trade and labor issues that have plagued neighboring countries. As Latin America prospers, immigration pressures dissipate and markets open up. The exploitation of labor on both sides of the border drives immigration here. The current Senate bill tries to address these issues in a far more reasonable way than has been done previously.

Trading sound bites about border security does not rise to the task at hand. A border fence is only good for the values it protects. Talking points need to name the causes of immigration. They also need to affirm basic moral values: reuniting families, recognizing the dignity of every person, honoring hard work and responsibility, sheltering the vulnerable (refugees, asylum seekers, trafficked persons) and modernizing our immigration system to meet current realities.

These are values that endure. Catholics, Evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Jews, Muslims and many others affirm them, and have been hosting prayer vigils around the country and urging their senators and representatives to support immigration reform. They form part of that moral arc toward which justice in the universe bends.

Rubio and his Senate colleagues can be champions of such values. They would be on the winning side of this defining moment.

Rev. Dr. Russell Meyer is the executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, which brings together the Protestant denominations of nearly 1 million Christians in Florida.

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