Immigration Inspires Hope, Fear, and Debate Among Convention Democrats

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On the eve of the official nomination of Presidential candidate Barack Obama, the son of an immigrant, some of the leading voices shaping the Democratic Party’s immigration reform platform reveal a mix of reserved optimism and pragmatism.

While the Blue Dog Democrats – a group of 47 moderate and conservative Democratic Party members of the United States House of Representatives – support a position on immigration that bears more than a passing resemblance to the “enforcement only” approach of many Republicans, other Democrats support a combination of legalization and major reforms as alternative to raids and detentions that defined the Bush era of immigration.

In between these two positions are a significant number of Democrats and their supporters who want to focus primarily on legalization without including any significant changes to the policies that enable raids and massive detention like this week’s raid in Mississippi.

Outside the Pepsi Convention Center are hundreds of immigrant rights groups, planning a major mobilization this Thursday – the day of Obama’s acceptance speech. They will protest what they believe is the unwillingness of Democrats and their Washington-based immigrant rights allies to seriously support what the press release of the March 25th Coalition calls “Human legalization and a moratorium on raids and deportations.”

As she anxiously awaits the end of Bush era, Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law, says she sees real change on the immigration horizon. “I’m confident that with an Obama presidency we will have comprehensive immigration reform in the first term-but it’s not going to be easy.” Lofgren, a former immigration attorney, and other panelists speaking at one of the few from among the hundreds of Convention events at which immigration was even discussed, were cautiously optimistic, but they also expressed a number of different interpretations of what the sorts of policies define “comprehensive immigration reform.”

For her part, Lofgren, who did not support the McCain-Kennedy bill, which combined policies legalizing the more than 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. with policies increasing the number of ways to persecute, prosecute, jail and deport future undocumented immigrants, believes that “an important part of the answer is not to have so many people who do not have legal status.” But at the same time, she believes that something must be done to about a “whole [detention] system that is wrong and causing lots of suffering.” Lofgren and a number of other Democrats in Congress cite the recent case of the Chinese immigrant Hui Lui Ng, who died while in immigration detention, just two weeks before the Convention.

Though he too decries the raids, detention and deportation issues criticized by Lofgren and others as the “least humane part of the broken immigration system”, Simon Rosenberg, President and Founder of the New Democrat Network (NDN), which sponsored the panel, is not optimistic that these issues will be included in whatever reform package gets introduced next. “Although desirable, I think it would be difficult to include fixing the detention and [immigration] judicial system in comprehensive immigration reform because it really wasn’t a critical part of what came about last time,” said Rosenberg. “It doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t get done. I’m just not sure if that’s the best vehicle for it. If the goal is to include these issues in comprehensive immigration reform, then we have lots of work to do to make them front and center in this debate.”

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a Washington-based immigration reform group, admitted that he and others supporters of the McCain-Kennedy legislation failed because they “made concessions” on detention, enforcement and other issues in order to woo Republicans, who, Sharry said, “failed to bring any votes.”

“We knew the senate [McCain-Kenney Bill] was deeply flawed but we believed the legalization component for the 12 million immigrants was decent and the family reunification provisions could be fixed before the final passage.

Sharry also stated that he and others were “hopeful” they could change some of the more than 700 pages of enforcement language in the McCain-Kennedy legislation. Sharry said he is “self-critical” about the expectations but also said he and others will continue to support an approach to immigration reform that calls for legalization that “doesn’t fear the rule of law”, from which other advocates, he said, shy away.

roberto_lovato.jpgFor his part, Congressman Raul M. Grijalva, whose district in John McCain’s home state of Arizona was referred to during hallway talk at the Convention as “ground zero” for the immigration reform debate, said he has been pushing for his colleagues to place a priority not just on legalization, but on detention, raids and issues as well. “We can’t wait any more when it comes to demilitarizing and improving enforcement and detention. It’s what I hear in my district all the time, all the time. And things have gotten better for us [Democrats] in the past 5 years,” said Grijalva. As he received word of the ICE raid in Mississippi, Grijelva said, “Our side has to get tougher. We can’t afford to be as muted this time.”

by Roberto Lovato

BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator, Roberto Lovato, is a contributing Associate Editor with New America Media. He is also a frequent contributor to The Nation and his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, Der Spiegel, Utne Magazine, La Opinion, and other national and international media outlets. Prior to becoming a writer, Roberto was the Executive Director of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), then the country’s largest immigrant rights organization. Click here to contact him or via his Of América blog.

Republished from the Black Commenator, with permission.

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