After a divisive health care debate and a shocking special election to fill liberal champion Edward Kennedy's Senate seat for Massachusetts, many doubt whether progressives can generate momentum toward items further down the Obama administration's agenda. Such items include immigration reform, which failed in 2007 but reappeared in the House late last year under a bill sponsored by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and again earlier this month under the auspices of Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Most Americans must think Gutierrez, the two senators and marchers on Washington are on a fool's errand. House and Senate votes on health care reform have been closely contested and fiercely partisan. Yes, Democratic majorities technically hold in Congress, but the immigration debate must now proceed in an election year. Progressives will have scarce room and little time to maneuver on questions such as normalized status for non-citizens who broke the law to stay here, especially if they took a job that might have gone to a legal resident as the country suffered double-digit unemployment.
President Obama might offer a rallying cry before Congress and the nation, as he did for health care, but the president himself faces a referendum in midterm elections. His political capital is depleted by the health care bill.
Yet, lightning can strike twice if reform forces ask the right questions of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which emerged as a powerful arbiter during the health care fight. Ordinarily a straight party-line vote would be accepted as clear evidence for lack of deliberation and trampling of minority rights, but the CBO changed the calculus of reform, issuing influential reports that bolstered Democrats on the eve of committee votes and subsequently on the House and Senate floors.
Can the CBO be leveraged for the immigration debate? It can if progressives pose their questions correctly. Normalizing the status of undocumented immigrants will likely create new expenses for government. Legal workers and their families will become eligible for services and protections that they cannot access today. On the other side of the ledger are revenues from government fees, taxes and, crucially, job creation.
Much negative talk has circulated about how different the Hispanic immigrant population is from America at large. Their relative poverty, it is said, curses them with a voracious appetite for public services. Their language, culture and religion dull their sensibility for rule of law and handicap them from any civic contribution of real value. Unfortunately for progressive reform, this fearful image requires only fragmentary evidence to sustain itself, especially in the Southwest and urban corridors where immigrants have concentrated.
The nightmare scenario also ignores the logic of the lower-middle class in Latin America, which is more educated, more ambitious and more mobile than the conjured underclass, the truly damned, trapped in remote villages or huddled in shanty towns. Stealing across the U.S. border or overstaying a legitimate visa is an investment that the worst-off Mexicans, Salvadorans or Dominicans can neither afford nor appreciate. Yes, the undocumented immigrant, as part of his down payment, broke U.S. law, but current law is poorly constructed, patently unenforceable and crying out for change.
The CBO should consider that the most significant rewards for the immigrant accepting risk come not in humanitarian aid but in work, greater opportunity and disposable income — which require determination, skill and crucially, law and order before they can be enjoyed. If progressives deliver greater certainty with their reform, chances are quite good that the CBO will make the connection to greater security and prosperity for the United States. Nothing could be more American than granting property rights to hundreds of thousands of middle-class families currently living in limbo.
Improve immigration law, and the CBO might find that millions of Americans, old and new, have major economic incentives to uphold it. Immigration reform can flip a switch to put millions with traditional middle-class values to work stimulating our economy. Recognizing that may offer just enough debating points and political cover for the president to wring enough votes for progressive reform out of the new Senate.
Damon Coletta teaches American government at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The opinion expressed here is personal and not an official representation of the U.S. government or the Air Force Academy.