Over the next week Congress is likely to pass SCHIP, the program designed to provide health insurance to children who do not have it. As these two stories show (here and here), the debate on SCHIP – the very first bill brought up by the new Congress – has already been impacted by the ongoing debate over immigration, with the Senate and House now planning on passing different versions of the legislation. In response to questions from several reporters today, I issued the following statement:
“That the debate over SCHIP has immediately become a debate about immigration should be a clear warning to the Administration and Congress that progress on many important domestic priorities this year may get caught up in the debate on how to best fix our broken immigration system. It is our belief that rather than having a series of tough and contentious proxy fights on immigration, our leaders should recognize that passing comprehensive immigration reform this year will not only help fix our badly broken immigration system – a priority of many Americans – but may also be the key to unlocking bipartisan progress on a whole range of other domestic and security related issues.”
There are many good reasons to fix our broken immigration system by passing comprehensive immigration reform this year: it is a well-crafted fix to a serious national problem; it has the overwhelming support of the American people and a deep and broad bi-partisan coalition behind it; it will demonstrate that Congress and the President have the ability to tackle the hard ones; it will help weaken the vast and increasingly dangerous culture of illegality in the border region, which will help our law enforcement officials address more pressing problems; it was able to muster 62 votes and pass a Republican Senate, demonstrating that this is not a toxic or “third rail” issue; it will help us better manage the all too porous border in a time of possible terrorist attacks; it will ensure that five percent of our workforce has the protection of American law, is paid minimum wage and has the right to unionize, something these workers do not have today; it will help quiet the very public demonstration of hatred and racism that has spilled out during this debate; and for the Democrats it will deliver on a promise made to the fastest growing part of the electorate, one that was critical to their victory.
But as our country’s leaders are also finding out with SCHIP, passing comprehensive immigration reform will also be a key that unlocks progress on other critical domestic priorities. I hear talk in Washington that perhaps this issue will fall to 2011, or 2012. To me this makes no sense. Immigration Reform should be tackled this year. Our broken immigration system is a vexing national problem that the American people want solved. It is contributing to an increasingly dangerous border region, clogging our courts, tossing a federal problem back down to the states, and causing terrible harm to millions of families across the country. Not solving it – when manifestations of it dominate the local news every day – makes our leaders look weak, fearful, political. It will also slow down progress on lots of other issues, from housing and foreclosure reform, universal health care to putting laptops in the backpack of every child. These and other areas that will be subject to questions about whether the benefits confered may somehow be used by an undocumented immigrant or their children.
Thus, the new Congress and the new Administration should be smart, pass comprehensive immigration reform this year. The legislative process should start with a version of the original Kennedy-McCain bill from 2006, and its formula that called for cracking down on the border and on exploitive employers, better management of the future flow of both high and low skilled immigrants, and legalizing the status and offering a path to citizenship for those already here. By doing so our leaders will not only be doing the right thing, they will free up the nation from the debilitating proxy fights over immigration that will continue to plague so many legislative battles in the years ahead.