When I was a child and didn’t know how to hold my breath under water, I was afraid to go swimming in the deep end of the pool. My father taught me to pinch my nose and dive in. To this day, that’s the mental image I use to overcome my fears, in and out of the water.
So I immediately sympathized with House Speaker John Boehner when I saw his picture in The New York Times last Saturday. The picture, taken by Times photographer Stephen Crowley, probably catches him in the act of holding in a sneeze or maybe even scratching an untimely itch, but to me it looked like Boehner was holding his breath.
The question is, what does he fear?
Members of the Republican-controlled House, led by Boehner of Ohio, have repeatedly said they are not going to take up the immigration reform bill the Senate passed last month. They will come up with their own bill, they say, one that they can live with, justify with their constituents and pass. They are scheduled to meet this week to decide what to do about the bill the Senate overwhelmingly approved.
The Republicans are waddling in the shallow end of the pool. A bill that facilitates a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, even if it takes them more than a decade to achieve the golden cup of citizenship, is simply too much for an august body of lawmakers who appear to have learned nothing from the last election.
Latinos, who overwhelmingly shunned the Republican Party last November, are not the only ones agitating for comprehensive immigration reform. Other interest groups, for their own purposes and interests, have joined the growing chorus of Americans who want a fair solution to the mess we’ve been saddled with for almost two decades.
Lobbyists representing businesses, the technology industry, labor unions, farmers, churches, educators, even law-enforcement associations are all trying to convince members of Congress that the status quo is unsustainable.
And yet, Republicans demure.
Here’s the problem: If a path to legality is not offered, what to do with 11 million people living in the shadows?
Unless we are willing to deploy law-enforcement officers to go door to door to seek and deport every single undocumented immigrant in this country, the smart way of dealing with the people who are already part of our communities is to legalize their status. They are here already; they might as well be full members of a society that clearly needs them to stay even if it doesn’t want them to.
In what seemed like a heartfelt speech before the Senate’s vote, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida framed the issue in what ought to be a palatable narrative for Republicans. What we now have is a “de facto amnesty,” he said. The status quo is “a terrible mess.” By offering a path to citizenship — a twisted and difficult path, mind you — we are, in fact, serving our needs for control and homeland security, not the immigrants’, he implied.
Rubio’s spin on immigration reform was so strained that it almost makes you think undocumented immigrants are better off without this bill. Of course, that is not the case, but Republicans who want immigration reform are twisting like pretzels to make the bill seem punitive rather than practical, or, God forbid, benevolent.
In my years covering the issue of immigration, no one has come up with an alternative route to a path to citizenship. It’s always been about the border. But the border is only one piece of the equation, and the Senate bill more than took care of that piece, allocating $40 billion to the militarization of the border.
Rubio is right when he says we’ve contributed to this mess. It was the draconian 1996 immigration law — called Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act — that helped trap so many undocumented immigrants in this country.
The law stipulated that if you were in the country illegally and left, you couldn’t come back for at least 10 years unless you left before a certain deadline. Many people left before the deadline. (I remember interviewing a German immigrant who had an American-born daughter and was torn between leaving alone or with her daughter.)
But, for most, the deadline came and went. People who perhaps would have left and come back, as many undocumented immigrants used to do, simply stayed. Years went by. They married, had children, and paid coyotes to bring to them the children they had left behind. The Latino population explosion ensued. According to the U.S. Census, there are now almost 56 million Hispanics in the United States.
And so here we are, with a mess of our own making. The country can no longer afford to look the other way, and Republicans in the House would do well to listen to the majority of Americans who support a path to the legalization of undocumented immigrants.
Sometimes you just have to hold your nose and plunge in.