Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Democrats call once more for comprehensive immigration reform, but how feasible is it?

Demonstrators hold signs supporting undocumented immigrants during a rally in Charlotte, NC ahead of the Democratic National Convention, Sept. 2, 2012
Demonstrators hold signs supporting undocumented immigrants during a rally in Charlotte, NC ahead of the Democratic National Convention, Sept. 2, 2012 Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

As its national convention commences, the Democratic party is pushing a platform that again calls for comprehensive immigration reform. As expected, its tone is far different from that of the stricter, enforcement-based platform embraced by the Republican party.

But it begs the larger question of whether comprehensive immigration reform is politically feasible, even now. As recent history has shown, it's one thing to discuss it, but getting this through Congress is a very tough sell.

In 2006 during the Bush administration, the imminent promise of broad immigration reforms, coupled with stringent proposals that didn't take, drove hundreds of thousands to rally for immigration reform in cities around the country. When it didn't materialize, the immigration reform lobby regrouped, with different factions pushing for smaller changes that have manifested themselves as policies like deferred action, a new plan that promises temporary legal status for qualifying young people.

While Obama supporters say a second term would be an ideal time for the president to push a broad legalization policy, others say that the chances of this happening - in any administration - are next to none. Below are a couple of takes on what the chances are.

Last June, the New York Times' conservative op-ed columnist Ross Douthat pointed to the mid-2000s, when the stars seemed perfectly aligned, and provided his take on why "the push for some sort of amnesty or earned legalization for illegal immigrants failed repeatedly under George W. Bush, and a reason it wasn’t much of a priority for Democrats during their Obama-era window of Beltway dominance." As he puts it, divisions lie in both parties over such an idea:

It wasn’t just that conservative Republicans rebelled against the White House-led effort to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. It was that the Democratic leadership wasn’t eager to deliver the votes for a measure that could split their own party along lines of race and class.

What was true in Bush’s second term will probably be true in a hypothetical second Obama term as well. There might be a bipartisan coalition for a relatively limited measure like the Dream Act, which provides a path to citizenship for college graduates who were brought to America as minors. But if Jeb Bush Republicans and Obama Democrats try to fast track a more comprehensive bill, they will be reminded that there are other sorts of Republicans and Democrats, and that bipartisanship cuts both ways. Even if the president wins re-election, the populist coalition that opposes amnesty may still be as large as — if not larger than — the elite coalition that supports it.


The Democratic party platform criticizes Republicans, meanwhile, for obstructing immigration reform attempts. Meanwhile, a 2007 paper from the MIT Center for International Studies points to the larger dynamics behind the failure and prospects of immigration reform, and which help fuel the political divide. In it, Senate judiciary counsel and law professor Tara Magner looks at economic factors and anti-reform advocacy while asking, "Must enforcement come first?"

The paper was written at a time when immigrant advocates were coming to terms with the fact that the reforms they'd hoped for weren't going to happen, at least not yet. In the years since, the Obama administration's tough enforcement has led to record deportations, and border-crossing arrests have dipped to record lows. But some of what Magner wrote about then hasn't changed:

Immigration advocates on both sides are mobilized to make their cases in Washington and to the American public.

Nonetheless, positive reform will not be achieved until powerful business interests argue persuasively that the need for workers in key industries outweighs the arguments of the cultural conservatives that immigrants are harmful to the nation’s economic growth and social fabric.


The 2012 Democratic party platform can be viewed here. One interesting side note: In the section under civil rights, it mentions support for binational same-sex couples:
The Administration has said that the word ‘family’ in immigration includes LGBT relationships in order to protect bi-national families threatened with deportation.

KPCC's Kitty Felde will be posting regularly from Charlotte, North Carolina during the convention. Keep up with her reports here.
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