Immigration Is About People. That’s an Opportunity for Republicans | Commentary

Posted December 2, 2014 at 1:58pm

Emotions are running high following President Barack Obama’s announcement Thursday of executive action on immigration.

The left is thrilled the president has acted, the right is angry he is acting. The left is frustrated anti-immigrant forces hold the House hostage, the right is frustrated the lack of reform stymies their engagement of Hispanic voters.

At all levels, the story has been about process and politics, not people. But now that the president has acted, that is changing.

Already, proponents of the action are telling the stories of contributing families who can now emerge from the shadows. Even many who are upset about the process recognize that it will have positive outcomes and empathize with the immigrant community — even as they are articulating the need for a permanent legislative solution.

While the political battle in Washington, D.C., likely will reach a fever pitch when Congress returns next week, local press are putting a human face to the story, which will change it drastically.

Front-page pieces have featured communities celebrating the announcement, even as they lament its limited scope. Images show families shedding tears, some of joy, some of sadness.

The tears of joy stem from the stories all of us imagined we’d see after Congress passed broad immigration reform. They were going to be the stories of Congress doing something we were all proud of.

In the coming weeks we will hear more stories: of our friends’ nannies, housekeepers, landscapers or neighbors who have come forward to say, “I am legal.”

Many undocumented immigrants will have faces and names. And many who are now angry at the process and politics will realize this is about people.

People they actually know.

This will not turn the tide such that overwhelming majorities of Americans will support executive action. But an empathetic human story can temper the most intense political flames.

That’s important. If anger at executive action is misdirected at immigrants themselves, constructive legislation will be incredibly difficult. And that would be bad news for a Republican party that is beginning to look and feel more inclusive.

Recognition that executive action is not ideal spans the political spectrum. All of us pushed for a different solution — a solution that may very well come during the next Congress.

It is up to Republican leadership to play their hand strategically, given the cards they have been dealt. Most of the early signs aren’t promising. But when this comes down to credit, Republicans have two choices.

They can get the credit for moving forward aggressively with their version of immigration reform. Or they can get credit for dismantling what the president does. The former is great for people, the latter for politics.

Recently, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., laid out a legislative strategy that would focus on enforcement followed by legalization. “Rather than poke [President Obama] in the eye, I’d rather put legislation on his desk,” Flake said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, weighed in, too: “Many [immigrant families] are good people who are assimilated into their communities. And Republicans care about our Hispanic friends. We want to work with them and remind them that President Obama isn’t a hero for doing what he did. He didn’t solve these issues on a permanent or lasting basis. It’s crass politics, and Republicans can do better.”

The 114th Congress has a great opportunity to do better, put legislation on the president’s desk and take credit for finding the long-term answers our country needs and wants.

Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.