As an immigrants right advocate reflecting on the 12th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, I am reminded of how similar this time feels to 2001. Back then, the momentum on immigration reform, buoyed by President George W. Bush, was immediately derailed by the horrific attacks. This month, the prospect of attacks on Syria has once again nudged immigration reform to the back burner in Congress. Is immigration reform doomed to failure once again?
By fall of 2001, immigration reform was a hot topic in Washington. President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox met just five days before the 9/11 attacks. Immigration reform was a key agenda item. That visit had been preceded by the introduction of three key pieces of immigration legislation introduced in 2001: the DREAM Act, an AgJobs bill, and extensions of Section 245(i), an adjustment of status provision. A mere six days after President Bush and President Fox met, the country became subsumed by the attacks and their aftermath. In the meantime, immigration reform became an issue non grata, and not even President Bush could use the White House to champion reform. Furthermore, our country entered a new period of anti-immigrant sentiment and actions, as well as restrictive immigration policies and practice.
Fast-forward to 2013. President Obama, Congress, and immigration advocates are attempting to align on fixing our broken system once again. Those of us who work on immigrant issues and help mobilize the immigrant community for social justice and civic engagement have been cautiously optimistic. We have had reason after all, especially after a successful August recess, which confirmed that the American people support reform, the momentum was positive. But now in the beginning days of September, with a possible attack on Syria looming, signs are pointing to a protracted debate, and immigration reform may not see a House vote this fall. But, I hope Congress can be less short-sighted, keeping its eyes on the long-term health of our economy and democracy.
Here's why we can expect this round of debate to be different. For one, there is the clear message Republicans received in the 2012 elections. According to the Pew Trust's Hispanic Trends Project, Latinos voted for President Barack Obama over Governor Mitt Romney by a margin of 71 to 27 percent. Second, the grassroots momentum is strong and steady. Finally, the coalition of business, labor and advocates is closely aligned for a comprehensive solution to our immigration system. From Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and AOL's Steve Case to SEIU's Eliseo Medina and the AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka, there is unanimous support for better policy and a pathway to citizenship.
Postponing legislation and debate to 2014 will land the issue smack in the middle of preparation for the 2014 midterms. Some would argue that House members may choose to push for a bill that includes a pathway to citizenship in order to get reelected. On the other hand, 80 percent of House Republicans are in districts with majority white populations. And, despite polling, members are not likely to cast a vote that threatens their election. Earlier this year, political scientist Tom Wong created a model to predict votes by House members on immigration reform. The headline indicated that a CIR bill would fail if the House had voted in May. But deeper in the story is the real headline -- the model showed that if House members voted according to their past records, they may not support reform, but now if these members take into account the new voters in their districts -- younger, more diverse -- then the outcome could be very different.
In April, after the Boston marathon bombing, many of us held our breath, wondering if those events would stall immigration reform in the Senate. In fact, the discussion and debate of the Senate bill continued to a positive result in June, when the bill passed with a strong majority. This is another indication that the climate for immigration reform is different from 2001. Now Congress needs to move forward and demonstrate that it can pass legislation that is comprehensive and fair, and long overdue.
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