Sunday, December 14, 2008

On Election Day, the American people hired leaders they believe will tackle and solve tough problems. They fired politicians who cover up inaction and ineffectiveness with slick sound bites and punchy slogans.

The public wants action — and results — on a range of tough issues. Of course, economic recovery is job number one, but the public demand for action on illegal immigration has been underestimated for too long.

Both presidential candidates got it. They promised action on immigration reform in their first year. Moreover, when the Obama campaign quietly put together transition teams on seven priority policy areas to begin work months before Election Day, immigration reform made the cut.

Why is illegal immigration now a top-tier policy concern? Is it anger at the illegal immigrants? No. In a recent poll conducted by Sergio Bendixen for NDN only 3 percent of voters blame them. Employers who game the system? Yes, nearly a quarter of voters blame employers, many of whom are seen as unscrupulous actors who underpay workers and skip out on taxes. But by a 2-1 margin the public blames the federal government and Congress. Failure to solve illegal immigration is now a symbol of how Washington doesn’t work.

This is what most Democrats now get and most Republicans don’t. In 2008, Barack Obama and the vast majority of Democratic candidates for Congress defined themselves as in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. The key elements of comprehensive reform are strong enforcement at the borders and the workplace coupled with a requirement that those here illegally pass criminal background checks, pay taxes, study English and get to the back of the citizenship line. This is viewed by the majority of Americans as the most pragmatic approach to this complicated problem.

In contrast, most Republicans adopted a harder line. John McCain felt compelled to pander to make-‘em-all-leave primary voters with a promise of “border security first.” In contested congressional races, most Republicans trumpeted the enforcement-only position of “no amnesty” so popular with talk radio and anti-immigration groups.

The results? Mr. Obama trounced Mr. McCain with Latino voters generally (67 percent to 31 percent) and Latino immigrant voters especially (75 percent to 25 percent). This represents a dramatic shift from the success George W. Bush had in 2004 (John Kerry won 59 percent to 40 percent with Latinos generally and only 52 percent to 48 percent with Latino immigrants). The results in battleground congressional races was just as stark. In 22 battleground House and Senate races where a Republican enforcement-only hawk challenged Democratic candidates who favored a more comprehensive approach to reform, the reform-minded Democrat won in 20.

What does this mean for the upcoming policy debate? Look for President Obama and Democratic leaders to lean into the issue and propose a worker and taxpayer-friendly approach to immigration reform. I can see it now. It’s Citizenship Day — Sept. 17, 2009. The president, surrounded by the smiling faces of flag-waving newly minted citizens, makes the case for reform.

You elected us to bring change, to solve big problems. You want an America that uses common sense for the common good. We are making progress on economic recovery, health care reform and energy independence. Now we intend to restore the rule of law to our immigration system.

For too long, unscrupulous employers have engaged in the illegal hiring and exploitation of immigrant workers. This undercuts American workers and law-abiding competitors. For too long, these same employers have failed to pay their fair share of taxes. And for too long, we have tolerated the existence of some 12 million of second class noncitizens living in the shadows of our society. We need reform that ensures all hiring is legal, protects American taxpayers and creates a level playing field for American workers and law-abiding employers.

The key elements of our approach are as follows: strengthen border security, crack down hard on employers who engage in illegal hiring and unfair labor practices, and require that immigrants here illegally come forward, get screened, get legal, pay taxes, study English and get to the back of the citizenship line. The time for considering increased legal immigration will come later. The priority is to create fairness and order in our workplaces and in our communities. Our approach will lift the wages of all workers in the lower end of the labor market and generate increased tax revenues, and do so in a way that is consistent with our commitment to being both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws.

I ask my Republican colleagues to join us in this significant step toward ending illegal immigration and doing the people’s will.

If Republicans respond with shouts of “no amnesty,” “they are taking our jobs” and “they have to go home first,” I am guessing that swing voters that want results and Latino voters that want respect will know who to turn away from and who to follow.

Frank Sharry is the executive director of America’s Voice.

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