Esther Cepeda: Deja vu on immigration reform
CHICAGO -- The San Jose Mercury News has ventured to say what everyone is taking as a foregone conclusion: “Immigration reform appears dead for 2014.” I hate to admit that it sure looks that way.
Over the past 10 years, the so-called immigration debate—a more descriptive term would be fact-challenged shouting match—has evolved little and now seems to be devolving.
Now the helplessness surrounding the issue is palpable and the tactics that immigration activists use to rally the troops have proved to have little effect.
It’s hard to remember, but in the winter of 2004 the big stories centered around President George W. Bush’s principles for the immigration overhaul he worked so hard, in vain, to pass—and whether the Sierra Club should advocate tough immigration restrictions in order to control environmental damage along the borders. Many people were chattering about the upcoming Sergio Arau movie, “A Day Without a Mexican,” released in May of that year.
Mobilization against the Bush proposal began in 2005 when Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner sponsored a bill that would have made assisting unlawful immigrants illegal. It threatened to make criminals of the medical establishment, religious communities and legal immigrants who gave succor to the unlawfully present.
Then came the big immigration reform marches of 2006—which upset many because crowds took to the streets waving the flags of foreign countries. Bush’s reform effort failed the next summer.
Subsequent marches gave way to a three-pronged effort by immigrant advocates: to make voting the tool for change; recruit coalitions of law enforcement, business and religious leaders to push for reform; and, as a last-ditch effort, try for legislation that would at least give immigrants who came to this country as young children a path to citizenship. You know how that turned out.
And here we are again, beginning another loop that starts with a lame-duck president, upcoming election naysayers and a less-than-fired-up electorate.
It’s true: Immigration is not at the top of the agendas of America’s policymakers.
President Obama, flummoxed by intractable international troubles, a sluggish economy and problems with his health care program, was recently denounced as the deporter in chief by some of the same high-profile Latino advocates who practically promised Hispanic voters he’d pass reform in his first term.
But now jobs, the economy and health care take precedence over immigration. And those who do think about immigration reform have mixed feelings. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that nearly three-quarters of Americans think immigrants living here illegally should be allowed to stay if they meet certain requirements. At the same time, nearly half of respondents said the increased deportations under the Obama administration are a good thing.
As for Hispanics, it seems that for every poll indicating that immigration is their top priority, another one says it isn’t. A recent study by EC Hispanic Media surveyed Spanish-speaking U.S. Hispanic Facebook users older than 18 during the months of November and December 2013 and found that they were—as ever—more concerned with jobs and the economy than with immigration.
This was at a time when young immigrant activists were protesting inaction in Congress by lying in front of buses full of deportees headed for Mexico, and former union leader Eliseo Medina fasted for 22 days on the Mall in Washington to bring attention to the issue, to no avail.
Last week, Elvira Arellano, the Mexican national who in 2006 took sanctuary in a Chicago storefront church for nearly a year, re-entered the United States illegally along with 20 other Latin American migrants as part of a protest to demand an end to deportations and passage of immigration law reform. Few took notice. And after all the immigration pain and absurdity that’s been covered in the news, it’s hard to imagine what, at this point, it would take to get enough people fired up about immigration reform to force Congress to act.
Unfortunately for millions of families, employers, farmers and local governments caught in the middle, there doesn’t seem to be any hope for action this year—and it appears as though we’re all about to just shrug it off once again.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.