Needed: A New Immigration Debate Narrative

House Republicans should step forward immediately after the new Congress is seated to debate and pass real immigration reform. In doing so they not only stand a real chance of having their reforms enacted, especially if the Republicans gain a majority in the Senate, but of also changing the terms of debate.

That new immigration debate is coming, unless Republicans do nothing and allow the old immigration debate to have a new, undeserved lease on life.

A new debate, commencing after the 2014 congressional elections, might further extend public understanding and expand the legislative and policy options for real immigration reform. Beyond the debate of legalization vs. citizenship, a new debate might focus on:

  • It’s possible that the public and congressional legislators will begin to focus on and understand the differences between immediate family members and extended, more distant family members.
  • It’s possible that public will come to understand that workplace enforcement for all present and future workers is the linchpin of ensuring that the United States does not face the same wrenching political, social, and psychologically circumstances about illegal migrants again within the decade.
  • It’s possible that the public and legislators will begin to really focus on the numbers involved – an estimated 11.7 million illegal migrants, plus their spouses, children, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers, and their families, the five million plus people on the immigration waiting lists and their families, the new high-tech workers and their families, the new lower-skilled workers and their families and relatives, and the new temporarily temporary agricultural workers and their families and relatives who would be eligible for legal permanent residency after several years of work.
  • It’s possible that debate can address the question of diversity in our stream of immigrants. Having a substantial or large part of our immigrant population come from one or a few countries is not in the country’s best interests. Diversity has become a fundamental value and feature of American culture, but that value has yet to find its way in our immigration policies.
  • The United States faces many immigration issues of a complex, technical nature. How many agricultural workers are needed? How many high-tech or low-skill workers are needed, and how should those immigration streams be handled? I raise these issues because there are different views of whether more or fewer of these kinds of workers are needed, and apart from numbers, what their status should be. Should they be viewed as “temporary workers” whose sole function is to fulfill an economic need – ours as well as theirs? Should they be given the option of legal permanent status or citizenship?

It is not hard to find views on both sides of the above issues. What has been lacking is a forum in which the evidence and implications of the different options can be seriously considered.

What be very useful is another National Commission on Immigration Reform, modeled on the exemplary work ofU.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by the late Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-TX). That commission was authorized in 1990 and dissolved in 1997, a period of seven years. A more focused set of immigration questions for such a commission, or a series of question to be asked and answered in sequence over time, could result in recommendations in a much briefer period.

The country desperately needs a forum to discuss immigration reform that stands apart from the partisan political process, and well as new thinking about our immigration options themselves.

However, presenting new immigration options not only requires getting beyond the false singular narratives that have dominated our national discussions to date but, for the GOP, making basic choices.

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