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Immigration Reform: You Can't Always Get What You Want

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Co-authored by Sara McElmurry and Nyki Salinas-Duda, Latino Policy Forum

As a community advocate working in the complex field of policy, I constantly wrestle with striking a balance between my idealism and my pragmatism. How does one reconcile die-hard beliefs in what is best for one's community with hard-learned lessons in the art of political compromise?

An answer to that question becomes even more urgent with the long-awaited arrival of SB744, the promising (though imperfect) immigration reform bill introduced by the Senate's "Gang of Eight" last month. The very fact that a bipartisan group of senators came to consensus on the contentious issue of comprehensive immigration reform deserves applause from both sides of the political aisle. But amongst community advocates, the celebration is tempered by a laundry list of concerns, with the bill's focus on border security top of mind for almost everyone. Still, as we ponder all that is wrong with SB744, we must recognize the road to reform is long, the window of opportunity narrow: Do we cling to our ideals at the risk of slowing -- perhaps completely stalling -- the process, or bend our beliefs in the spirit of keeping the reform process moving?

I've previously written that additional investments at the border are short-sighted, and I still believe that. Data show us that immigration from Mexico is at a net zero and border arrests are at their lowest levels since 1972. Border agents arrested an annual average of 200 undocumented immigrants each in the year 2000. By 2011, that number was down to 20. And yet the Gang of Eight's proposal includes an additional investment of $4.5 billion in security for our southern border, to be spent building a wall and furnishing an outfit of drones to patrol its length.

In a time of empty coffers and economic belt-tightening -- after all, President Obama is trying to use a cigarette tax to fund his ambitious early childhood education plan -- are there not better investments for precious tax dollars than in securing what is an already-secure border?

But reform is complicated, and negotiations will be tough as SB744 stumbles its way through a divided Senate, into a House rumored to have plans to squash the bill, and finally -- hopefully -- to President Obama's desk. And here's where I begin to wrestle with my pragmatic nature: At each step on the bill's long walk to the Oval Office, that opening bid of $4.5 billion has the potential to go from bad to much, much worse.

After much soul searching, I've found I am able to embrace political compromise for the sake of progress. Rather than insist the starting line for spending at the border be pushed back, I call on all involved to insist that discussions stop where they've started, right at $4.5 billion. SB744 embodies a political compromise and those billions in border security are being offered in exchange for buy-in on other essential aspects of the proposal, like a pathway to citizenship and expanded provisions for family reunification.

A stubborn unwillingness to negotiate -- manifesting itself in the years of partisan politics and unbending ideologies on Capitol Hill -- has kept our immigration system broken for too long. We as advocates have called on our elected officials to put aside politics for the sake of comprehensive reform, and we must also be willing to make concessions, to take our own advice. Compromise on border security may be a mere warm up for the difficult negotiations ahead for SB744, and we had best be prepared. We'll have to strike a balance between the reform we'd ideally like to see and the provisions that are necessary to begin repairing a system in tatters.

The Rolling Stones once wrote "you can't always get what you want." And perhaps that's true. But in the case of immigration reform, millions of undocumented immigrants may soon find that they may be getting exactly what they need: a reform that will allow them to live in this country without fear of deportation. And it's up to all of us to support a process that finds compromise between what we want and what they need.