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Historic Immigration Debate Raises the Question: What Kind of America Do We Want?

05/24/2013 09:43 pm ET | Updated Jul 24, 2013

As the Senate Judiciary Committee reached the finish line of its marathon voting session on a bipartisan immigration reform bill, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), asked a question that will go to the heart of the upcoming debate on the Senate floor and, eventually, in the House.

"What kind of America are you thinking about?" Durbin asked Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who offered an amendment to strip from the bipartisan bill the crucial road to citizenship for 11 million aspiring citizens. Other proposals would have created unprecedented restrictions to tax credits for low-wage families, harming primarily U.S. citizen children.

Others shared Durbin's reactions to proposals that would have gutted the bill negotiated by the "Gang of 8" Republican and Democratic senators.

Killing the bill is exactly what Cruz and company are aiming for. Though the opponents of S. 744 lost at the committee level, they opened their political playbook to reveal a strategy to defeat the measure unless it is changed so that immigrants are relegated to permanent, or near permanent, underclass status.

It's the outdated political mentality that says, "Forget the American Dream, and the welcoming Statue of Liberty in the New York Harbor, especially if you are a low-wage worker." Immigrants would only be allowed in if America benefits by the sweat of their brow, but don't dare aspire to become citizens, want to be with their families, and be active participants in our democracy. If they make it here, they are on their own.

"I don't think that's an America we really want to live in," Durbin concluded.

Durbin's question -- what kind of America do we want? -- is what this historic immigration reform debate is about.

Will Congress uphold our national values that cherish the richness our immigrant community provides, their aspirations to become proud citizens, and the formation of a fair immigration system that respects human dignity and civil rights and holds everyone accountable? That is what Americans favor, according to public polling.

Or, will Congress allow itself to be led astray by those seeking to turn bad politics into bad policy? Choosing the latter wouldn't just hurt our economy and communities -- it would betray our national soul and identity.

How Congress responds to these questions will shape what we, as a society, expect of our government.

On the Judiciary committee, 13 of the 18 senators voted to send the bill to the Senate floor, reaffirming the broad goal to create a road to citizenship. However, Congress must recognize in order for our society and economy to flourish, we must ensure that all families, regardless of where they came from, have the tools they need to lead healthy, productive lives.

The anti-immigration flank is expected to re-offer broad-scale attacks on working class immigrant families. Indeed, while Sen. Hatch voted for the bill to proceed to the floor, he warned that he wouldn't vote for the bill on the floor unless his other amendments -- which would make life much more difficult for working immigrant families -- are adopted. We urge the Senate "Gang of 8" to reject such threats and stick together to preserve the integrity of this bill, and the integrity of our nation.

Compromises can, and will, be made on this bill. We ask all senators to consider how our economy and society will be shaped by these compromises, and reject short-term political gains that could have long-term policy and societal consequences for our nation.

As Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), noted, we need an immigration system that lives up to American values. When the Judiciary Committee took its vote last Wednesday, those of us in the room began chanting: "Yes, we can! Yes, we can!" We knew we were witnessing a historic moment and felt the momentum.

Not only can we do this, but there is a moral imperative to get it done right.

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