The time has arrived for President Barack Obama and Congress to take immediate action on comprehensive, humane immigration reform.

By immigration reform, I am not talking about militarizing our borders, empowering employers to behave as immigration enforcement officials and imposing fines or back taxes on aspiring citizens. Instead, I am talking about allowing labor to cross our borders similar to transnational capital, preventing employers from exploiting immigrant laborers and lowering application costs for future citizens.

Too often, when Democratic and Republican leaders speak about comprehensive immigration reform, their message mainly centers on enforcement-dominated policies. For instance, while Obama spoke eloquently about immigrants in his second inaugural address, his administration has deported more immigrants that his predecessor during the same time period.

As the Obama administration continues to separate hard-working immigrants from their families and friends, I find it hard to believe the president when he says, “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.” I can’t speak for anybody else, but I don’t find the deportation of over 1.6 million undocumented immigrants during Obama’s first term in office as “welcoming.”

Moreover, given that Republican leaders remain hostile and pay lip service to Latinos and immigrants in this country, it’s incumbent on Obama and Democratic leaders to invest the necessary political capital for the benefit of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. Instead of dehumanizing and blaming recent immigrants for America’s financial woes like the GOP, Obama and Democratic leaders should demand that Latino immigrants be treated with dignity, respect and tolerance. More specifically, Democratic leaders should educate and convince the public about the key role undocumented immigrants play in America’s social and economic prosperity, highlighting key characteristics like the willingness to sacrifice themselves for their families, possessing strong work ethics and engaging in entrepreneurial activities.

In developing a humane immigration reform policy, both Democrats and Republicans should learn from past immigrant policies with progressive elements. This includes the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, where immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa benefited from family reunification components of this law. This also includes the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, where almost three million immigrants qualified for amnesty. Regarding IRCA, Republican leaders in particular should learn from their iconic figure, then-President Ronald Reagan, who signed this legislation into law.

Instead of doing what’s right in both moral and economic terms by proposing another amnesty plan, a recent bi-partisan group of senators, also known as the Senate “Gang of Eight,” introduced a regressive, comprehensive immigration reform proposal. Composed of senators like Marco Rubio (R-Florida), John McCain (R-Nevada), Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), this tentative plan includes a so-called pathway to citizenship for qualified undocumented immigrants. It mainly focuses on punitive measures, such as a border-enforcement perquisite before granting citizenship, imposing fines and back taxes, deputizing employers to become more effective immigration enforcement officials and creating an exploitable labor pool of guest workers, like the Bracero Program of the mid-1900s — a program that my father, Salomon Huerta Sr., participated in under inhumane working conditions.

The ongoing preposterous remarks by Sen. Rubio must be challenged. While Rubio, who embellished his parent’s immigration from Cuba to the U.S. in the 1950s, argues that a border-enforcement first policy represents a tough, but fair proposal, where undocumented immigrants must wait until the U.S.-Mexico border is cured and get in the back of the line before becoming citizens. First of all, did Rubio’s parents get in back of the line when they first arrived in this country before Fidel Castro took power? What about his grandfather, who was an undocumented immigrant and almost deported if not for the favorable status Cuban immigrants receive in this country? Secondly, what is fair about creating a pre-requisite, like border-security first, that’s almost impossible to measure and implement in a 2,000-mile border. Thirdly, what line is Rubio talking about? The current system is so dysfunctional and backed-up that no single line exists. In fact, there doesn’t even exist multiple lines, like in the case of Costco.

That said, America’s only hope for comprehensive, humane immigration reform lies in the hands of Obama and Democratic leaders who have made some progress in other key areas, such as healthcare, gay rights and the economy. It’s time to see similar efforts if they want to keep enjoying the loyalty of the Latino vote at the ballot box.

In short, there’s only one humane and simple plan for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country: amnesty.


Dr. Huerta, UCLA visiting scholar at the Chicano Studies Research Center, is author of the forthcoming book, “How the Other Half Gets Scapegoated: Immigrants and the Working Poor in the U.S.,” by San Diego State University Press.

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