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The Road Ahead for Immigration Reform

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There's no doubt immigration will be one of the critical political and social issues of 2012. While substantial progress has been made on one significant concern -- improving border security -- overall the system remains broken. Whether America is successful in reforming it depends on the tone of the discussion in this country, guidance from the courts, and the prevailing political winds.

So far, when it comes to immigration and efforts by some states to impose a solution absent federal reform, we have seen a combination of initiatives -- unevenly applied at best, constitutionally untenable at worst -- and a national discussion that has wavered between constructive debate and hateful, ugly stereotypes.

In short, the immigration reform debate has engendered a mix of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Let's start with The Good: Both former President George W. Bush and President Obama have supported proposals for comprehensive immigration reform. In a 2006 speech, President Bush stated that "an immigration reform bill needs to be comprehensive, because all of the elements of this problem must be addressed together -- or none of them will be solved at all." Five years later, in his May 2011 address in El Paso, Texas, President Obama echoed those remarks, asserting that "what we really need to do is keep up the fight to pass genuine, comprehensive reform."

This past August, in the absence of a legislative progress toward immigration reform, President Obama on his own took some small positive steps, using his executive authority to ease some of the hardships the broken immigration system is causing, especially for youth and families. For example, the federal Department of Homeland Security now exercises prosecutorial discretion to target the agency's enforcement resources on those who pose the greatest risk to the public. However, the administration's actions do not obviate the need for comprehensive legislative reform.

There's also good news in the broad public support for meaningful reform. Recent studies indicate significant public support for reforms including streamlining the process for employers to hire foreign-born workers to perform seasonal work.

In an October 2011 national poll conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, we found that a strong majority of Americans -- 60 percent -- were in favor of a six-year path to citizenship if the children had arrived here before they were 15 years old and had lived here at least five years. And 65 percent of Americans said that children of illegal immigrants who were born in the U.S. should be considered American citizens.

Sixty percent of those polled indicated they would oppose any change in the 14th Amendment that would remove automatic citizenship for anyone born in the U.S.

Now comes The Bad: Many states across the nation -- including Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina -- have moved to pass anti-immigrant laws that are on shaky ground constitutionally and of questionable efficacy. Some courts are already reacting to these anti-immigrant laws by striking down the most controversial of the provisions.

The Supreme Court this term will rule on the legality of Arizona's SB 1070, the state law which seeks to push undocumented immigrants out by way of punitive measures. Passed in 2010, the Arizona law was the first in a wave of harsh state immigration laws that are having detrimental consequences on industry, citizens, and documented and undocumented immigrants alike.

In many of the states that have passed SB 1070 "copycat laws," local police are authorized to check an individual's immigration status during a traffic or any other lawful stop; during an investigation of petty offenses like open container laws, underage drinking, jay-walking, or smoking in an elevator; even during domestic violence incidents where often both the perpetrator and victim are initially arrested. For example, should an undocumented victim of domestic violence call 9-1-1 to report an incident in one of these states, that victim could be deported as a result of the police investigation.

And, of course, there's The Ugly: The stereotypes, hateful rhetoric, and dehumanizing language about Hispanics, Latinos or immigrants we've seen surrounding the issue, especially during the past year, threaten to derail meaningful reform and taint the national discussion.

Regardless of how Americans feel about immigration, appeals to prejudice and bigotry simply have no place in a civil debate.

The climate of bias and hostility toward immigrants that pervades the immigration debate hurts our country and stands in the way of the kind of reform Americans desperately seek to the broken immigration system.

Our own experience in the Jewish community has taught us that when a society begins to distinguish a group as less deserving of rights, then discrimination, exploitation, and worse can follow. The current system fails more than just immigrants seeking opportunity and fair treatment. It fails all of us by refusing to embrace a future that welcomes diversity and equal access to the American dream.

The consequences of a venomous, anti-immigrant climate impact us all. In Alabama, home to one of the nation's most restrictive immigration laws, headlines report that in the days after the law took effect, as many as 15 percent of Hispanic students were too afraid to attend school. In other states we hear stories about families broken apart, unpicked crops rotting on the vine, the embarrassing arrest of an international car company employee, and damage to tourism.

Without a doubt these stories highlight the imprudence of harsh state immigration laws. These provisions drive a wedge between law enforcement and immigrant communities. In particular, they deter Hispanics or Latinos -- whether documented or undocumented -- from reporting or serving as witnesses to criminal activities, including hate crimes.

The most severe impact falls upon Hispanics or Latinos who are undocumented or have undocumented family members, friends or co-workers. For such persons, these laws can create credible fear that any contact with law enforcement will result in arrest or deportation.

As we begin a new year, one that promises to bring key decisions from the courts, let us remember that there is a direct connection between the tenor of this political debate and the consequences to our communities. It is incumbent upon all of us to press for fair and workable federal immigration reform and to demand civil dialogue and respect in the process.

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