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Moving Ahead on Immigration Reform?

After several months of heated debate over how to reform our nation's immigration laws, the Senate's vote last week essentially killing the administration’s bill temporarily put the brakes on an issue of tremendous national importance. The vote on cloture, which would have ended debate and moved the bill toward a final vote, failed by a margin of 46 to 53.

Immigrant groups in New York reacted with a mixture of disappointment and a determination to continue working on an issue that clearly is not going away. "This is a chance to regroup and relaunch our efforts until we achieve real and fair immigration reform," Guillermo Chacon of the Salvadoran American National Network told the Daily News.

"I think the message for today is that this is not the end, that this is the beginning of a larger struggle," said Jose Calderon, vice president with the Hispanic Federation, in an interview with NY1.

"The Senate's failure to arrive at a solution is no excuse for the House to sit on its hands and do nothing," said Chung-Wha Hong of the New York Immigration Coalition (the organization for which I work) in a statement.

The Recap: The House Stalls

The 110th Congress first took up the immigration reform debate on March 22, 2007, when Representative Luis Guttierez, a Democrat of Illinois, and Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, introduced the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act, or the STRIVE Act. Despite flaws in the bill, many advocates viewed it as a sincere attempt at bipartisan solutions for a broken immigration system.

The STRIVE Act has 72 co-sponsors. But rather than move on that or any other immigration bill, the House chose to delay its debate on immigration reform. The leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat who chairs the immigration subcommittee, made the political calculation that they did not want to expose new Democratic members of the House, many of whom won their seats by narrow margins, to such a divisive and emotional vote without seeing the Senate pass a bill first. Consequently, the House put off a legislative debate on immigration and instead held a series of hearings intended to build consensus for any future immigration bill the House might consider.

A Secret, Doomed Bargain

Soon after the introduction of the STRIVE Act, the White House began organizing a group of Senate Republicans and later a handful of Senate Democrats to negotiate a deal for immigration reform. From the beginning, this backroom process shut out many lawmakers, advocates and the American people. Immigrant advocates also said the closed-door process ended up legitimizing the restrictive positions of senators, such as Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, who drove an incredibly hard bargain, threatening to walk away at various points in the negotiations. In the end, the Republicans successfully pressured the Democrats to make enormous concessions in order to keep their coalition intact.

After nearly three months of private negotiations with the White House, the senators involved in this process, including Democrats Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Ken Salazar of Colorado as well as a number of Senate Republicans, announced their "Grand Bargain." This bill did not reflect the immigrant rights movement's vision for immigration reform.

Among its most egregious provisions, the "Grand Bargain" would have dismantled the current family-based immigration system in favor of a point-based system that put more emphasis on education and employment experience than family relationships. It would have created a new underclass of workers by establishing a guest worker program with no real path to citizenship. And it would have dramatically expanded detention and deportation laws, effectively reducing the number of people who would be able to gain and keep lawful permanent residency.

Both anti-immigrant forces and pro-reform forces sharply criticized the bill. Opponents mounted serious procedural and substantive challenges to what many saw as the deeply flawed Senate bill.

On June 7, the Senate was unable to move toward a final vote on the bill, failing to produce the 60 votes necessary. The immigrant rights movement then called on the Senate to resume debate and not let this important issue simply go away. With the second failed cloture motion on June 28, however, immigration reform faces significant delays.

Doing Nothing is Not an Option

Many in the media and some in Congress have interpreted the Senate’s failure to move forward last week as the death of immigration reform. But that would be unacceptable. Congress has the responsibility to take up the important issue of reforming our country's immigration laws. Failure of a procedural vote may mean this particular Senate bill goes away, but in no way does it mean that the suffering of immigrant communities, the exploitation of workers, the devastation felt by separated families or the violations of immigrants' civil rights and human dignity will go away. Lawmakers have an obligation to find rational and humane solutions to fix our broken immigration system.

Avideh Moussavian is director of immigration policy and advocacy with The New York Immigration Coalition.


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