A novel approach to immigration reform


As if the dismal results of one election — Obama won, Romney lost — were not enough for the Republicans, here comes Round Two.

In Virginia on Tuesday, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the state’s conservative attorney general and, at one point, the favorite in the race, lost his gubernatorial bid, in part, because Latinos voted for his rival, veteran Democratic fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe.

Among other things, they remembered that Cuccinelli once seemed to liken immigration policy to pest control.

When talking about a pest issue in Virginia in a radio interview in 2012, this is what he said: “Anyway, it is worse than our immigration policy — you can’t break up rat families. Or raccoons or all the rest, and you can’t even kill them. It’s unbelievable.”

I’m sure he has regretted that comment, just like Romney has probably come to regret his gaffe during his own presidential campaign when he said that immigrants could self-deport.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, was reelected over his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barbara Buono.

While Buono won 46 percent of Latino voters, Christie walked away with 50 percent. Why? Much can be said about the governor’s popularity and the way he handled the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy last year, but exit polls also show that Christie won because the Latinos in his state backed him.

If nothing else, the support of Latinos for Christie shows that Republicans shouldn’t view Latinos as a “lost cause.” Latinos do not always vote for the Democrats, not even in the northeast.

There is a lot of back and forth about whether or not Latinos care about immigration as much as the media think they do. Some polls show that Latino voters have other priorities (health, jobs, education) while others show that immigration is a top priority.

The truth is probably in the middle. What seems certain is that Republicans in Congress should be paying attention to the election results — again — and find a way to quit stalling on immigration reform.

Or not.

In a recent piece in Foreign Affairs, economics professors Jagdish Bhagwati and Francisco Rivera-Batiz argue that comprehensive immigration reform would not necessarily reduce the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States, nor will it stop people from crossing borders illegally. We’ve tried that approach before, Bhagwati and Rivera-Batiz write, and it hasn’t worked.

Instead, they propose a novel approach — one that the country is already moving toward. Forget about the federal government, and let states compete for the cheap labor of undocumented immigrants by offering them incentives like driver’s licenses, statewide ID cards, healthcare, scholarships, jobs and — why not? — a little kindness.

They call it the human-rights approach. To me, it makes perfect economic sense. Hard workers go where they are needed and wanted and, preferably, where they’ll be treated with dignity. California is ahead of the curve on this.

Not only has Gov. Jerry Brown turned his state into a virtual sanctuary for undocumented immigrants with in-state tuition and driver’s licenses and other privileges, but also the president of the University of California and the former head of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, has pledged $5 million to help undocumented immigrants attend and succeed at her university.

While I still think a comprehensive immigration bill with a clear and not-so-difficult path to citizenship is necessary for practical and moral reasons, it may never come to pass. In the meantime, a state-by-state approach may be the way to go for now.

States that have been less than friendly toward immigrants, such as Alabama, have already seen their undocumented immigrant population decline. There are pictures of rotting crops on the Internet as farm workers vanished from Alabama when the state passed a tough immigration law in 2011.

Less than two weeks ago, the state agreed not to pursue key provisions of the law after it was challenged in court by civil-rights groups. Undocumented immigrants may return to Alabama and tomatoes may again be picked on time and the residents of that state may continue to enjoy their cheap salads.

In the meantime, New York City is open for business. The new mayor-elect, Bill de Blasio, has called on the state Legislature to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

He’s also promised to work toward a municipal identification card that allows undocumented immigrants to open bank accounts, sign leases, use public libraries and, simply put, to have in their wallets and pockets proof of the obvious: proof that they exist.

Read more Mirta Ojito stories from the Miami Herald


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