09/25/2013 08:35 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

The Immigration Cul-de-sac

Comprehensive immigration reform, once touted as a major legislative priority of the Obama administration, appears to be stranded in a cruel Washington cul de sac. Some Republican House leaders hope to kill a Senate immigration bill, passed this past July with broad bi-partisan support, through inaction. They see no urgency in immigration reform, yet millions of people look to Washington to pass new, national policy that will regularize the legal status of those who live here in limbo.

The eleven million undocumented who live in our country have family here, they work here, and contribute to the U.S. economy; they pay sales tax, real estate tax, and contribute to our social security program -- though without citizenship they'll never receive benefits. They want the opportunity, or pathway, to apply for citizenship but the Republican dominated House characterizes the pathway as "amnesty" for lawbreakers. The same Congress seems reluctant to prosecute the many -- in a complex economy fueled by cheap labor -- who profit through employment of the undocumented.

The House's intransigence appears to be leading us to another collapsed attempt at immigration reform, as was the case just seven years ago. The same far right base that undermined George W. Bush's push for immigration reform has become apoplectic in language and logic in response to reform supported by President Obama: The Knox County (TN) Sherriff, Jimmy "J.J." Jones, in late August, threatened to "stack these violators [the undocumented] like cordwood in the Knox County Jail." Angered that the federal government will not commission his deputies with federal immigration authority, Jones perfectly illustrates the need for one "federal" set of immigration standards and enforcement mechanisms.

Then there's Congressman Steve King (R-IO), whose bizarre July outburst regarding undocumented kids who excel in our public schools was especially revealing: Without citing a single source, he claimed that "for every one who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there... hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert."

These attacks on immigrants are completely out of sync with some clear realities: The U.S. economy is improving and immigrant labor is and always has been critical to the health of the economy. Right now, illegal immigration to this country has reached the lowest levels in decades, due, in large measure, to an aggressive border security program begun by the previous administration and bolstered by President Obama.

If the Senate bill dies in the House, the entire nation loses out on a historic opportunity for much needed social and economic reform. The non-partisan congressional budget office estimates that, ten years after implementation of the reform, the National Budget deficit would be trimmed by 700 billion dollars thanks to increased tax revenues. If the reform fails to become law, Republicans will be blamed and Hispanic voters will turn away from the Republican Party in even larger numbers. The President can implement parts of the immigration reform package via executive order, but that's a temporary measure, and executive orders are not laws -- only the Congress can pass a meaningful, permanent reform to dated immigration laws.

The palpable lack of urgency regarding immigration reform can be explained politically. The 11 million or more people who would benefit most through reform neither vote nor do they form part of any constituency. So some political leaders, focusing on the daily headlines and the next election cycle, do not seem motivated to advocate for social, civil rights legislation that animated previous generations of policy makers -- legislation that helped make this country more socially tolerant, more democratic.

To break this logjam, supporters of reform must become vocal. As in generations past, the young are leading the way toward humane, rational immigration reform in this country while the adults posture for political position. In the 1960s, the SNCC -- Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- led with dramatic demonstrations, sit-ins and marches and helped forge the landmark civil rights legislation of 1964. Now we have the brave young Dream Act kids pushing for much needed immigration reform. We don't know when comprehensive immigration reform will become the law of the land: We do know that those who fight to expand civil rights for all people are remembered and honored in history. Those who fight to deny those same rights are generally relegated to the footnotes of history.

Bryce W. Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney and board member at Latino Memphis, Inc. Michael J. LaRosa is associate professor of History at Rhodes College.