Immigration reform without Kennedy

Published 2 September 2009

Kennedy dramatically changed the U.S. immigration system with the Immigration Act of 1965, which eliminated the quota system and allowed immigration from Latin America and Asia to increase substantially

Democrats in Congress are hoping to push health care reform forward in honor of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, but the senator’s death serves as a reminder that Congress and President Obama have substantial work to do to accomplish another of Kennedy’s lifelong causes: immigration reform.

In a column in Roll Call, editor Morton Kondracke writes that passing immigration reform would also be a fitting tribute to the stalwart liberal, who died Tuesday night.

Kennedy dramatically changed the U.S. immigration system with the Immigration Act of 1965, which eliminated the quota system and allowed immigration from Latin America and Asia to increase substantially. The bill “will go down as one of our nation’s core civil-rights bills of that era,” the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute’s vice president Don Kerwin said in a statement.
CBSNews’s Stephen Condon writes that Kennedy also worked to pass the Refugee Act of 1980, and in 1986 he supported a measure that allowed nearly three million undocumented immigrants to gain legal status and established penalties against employers who hired illegal immigrants. He supported the Immigration Act of 1990, which increased the number of immigrants that could enter the country, including those who could enter with permanent job-related visas and temporary worker visas. “Senator Kennedy was the driving force behind every significant piece of immigration legislation over the past 40-plus years,” the American Immigration Law Foundation noted in a statement (PDF).

Both political parties and every American, regardless of status or station, can honor Senator Kennedy’s life and legacy by recommitting ourselves to making the United States of America the most welcoming, free, egalitarian and successful nation on earth,” wrote Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.”

In recent years, Kennedy worked with Republican Senator John McCain to shape a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have given an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

Kondracke compares the criticism of that measure to the controversy currently surrounding health care reform. The immigration measure faced “a hysterical campaign mounted by right-wing groups and talk show hosts that the bill would grant ‘amnesty’ to illegals,” he writes. “It’s akin to the current demagoguery over ‘death panels’ supposedly created under pending health legislation.”

Kondracke notes that since that debate in 2006 and 2007, the United States has made significant steps in improving its border security — an issue that many have said should take priority over immigration reform. For instance, U.S. Border Patrol manpower has been doubled since 2005.

Condon writes that at a Senate hearing earlier this year, Customs and Border Protection said that the number of people arrested while illegally crossing the Mexican border fell by 27 percent from the same period since last year. “We can pass strong, fair, practical and effective immigration reform this year,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the immigration subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said after that hearing.

President Obama met with members of Congress this year to discuss immigration reform, but White House officials admitted that there is currently not enough support in Congress to pass immigration reform. On a trip to Mexico earlier this month, the president said immigration reform would have to wait until next year.

While Kennedy’s death has prompted a pause in partisan vitriol over health care and a spate of other issues, it is impossible to say for how long a more even-tempered tone in Washington can last.

Condon notes that immigration reform is sure to be a hot topic in 2010 regardless of its progress in Congress, as Senator McCain will face scrutiny over the issue in his re-election campaign.