Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Engaging Politicians about Immigration Reform

Harold Heie


April 5, 2013

By Harold Heie

Those of us who have been advocating for immigration reform have been encouraged by the Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform that is being discussed by the Senate. But what is the best way to make our political representatives aware of our support of this proposal? I submit for your consideration some strategies that we have tried in northwest Iowa.

We first got the attention of Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa, the leading Republican on the Judiciary Committee that is debating this proposal, when a good number of the 800 plus Iowa residents who had signed a petition “To Fix Our Broken Immigration System” (still available for signature at flooded his Sioux City office with phone calls encouraging the Senator to support this measure. In a follow-up phone call, a staff member expressed surprise that so many persons from Sioux County (which is known for its conservatism on most political issues) had called. This led to the Senator agreeing to a telephone conference call with representatives from our local group of Bipartisan Framework supporters.

On March 4, seven representatives from the agricultural, educational and faith communities in Sioux County had a cordial and respectful conversation with Senator Grassley and his assistant. We were encouraged by his stating up-front that he was on the line primarily to listen to us. Based on this conversation with the Senator, I have developed two recommendations for others who may want to engage their political representatives in support of comprehensive immigration reform.

Speak or write from your heart about your first-hand experiences with your immigrant neighbors. Many of the politicians who will decide the fate of the current proposal for immigration reform may have had minimal experience “rubbing shoulders” with immigrant populations. When you get to know your immigrant neighbors and listen to their stories of joy and pain, your perspective changes. You will no longer see them as abstract “statistics” (as in “how can we get more of them to vote for us next time”). Rather, they are flesh-and-blood human beings whose pressing needs for assistance and dignity must be addressed.

In our conversation with Senator Grassley, the members of our group were eloquent and passionate in sharing their experiences with their immigrant neighbors. Representatives of the agricultural sector spoke convincingly of the marvelous work ethic of their immigrant employees and stated bluntly that they “would go out of business” if it were not for these excellent workers. An educator spoke of the diligence of the children of undocumented immigrants in their school work and of the pressing need for some workable version of the DREAM ACT that would safeguard their interests and future. A local minister spoke of his exposure to the devastating effect that current immigration laws are having on the unity and stability of immigrant families in his congregation. These were not abstract pronouncements. We hope that Senator Grassley felt our pain and the pain of our immigrant neighbors.

Remind your political representative that some aspects of the proposed new legislation address his/her previous concerns. When Senator Grassley did speak, he reminded us of the position he has stated in writing in the past: “Knowing what we know now [from what didn’t work in the reforms enacted in 1986], any immigration reform bill must include tough and effective enforcement measures and adequately enhance legal immigration opportunities.” We then reminded Senator Grassley that, in addition to “proposing a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants,” the proposed framework makes that pathway “contingent upon securing the border and combating visa overstays” (italics mine). And the proposed framework also calls for a strong employment verification program as well as measures for “improving our legal immigration system.” These are measures for which Senator Grassley has been a past advocate and they are all incorporated into the proposed Bipartisan Framework. We hope that this reminder should count for something as the Senator considers the total proposed framework.

Difficult negotiations remain as the Bipartisan Framework moves forward. On the phone, Senator Grassley and his assistant expressed the view that the Democrats are succumbing to pressure from the unions to limit provisions for the hiring of lower-skilled immigrant workers. Recent media reports suggest that unions and the Chamber of Commerce have been involved in intense negotiations around the number of visas allotted to immigrant workers in various key industries. But as a clergyman on our end of the telephone line graciously quoted, verbatim, the proposed Bipartisan Framework promises: “Our proposal will provide businesses with the ability to hire lower-skilled workers in a timely manner when Americans are unavailable or unwilling to fill those jobs” (and our agricultural representatives attested to a high level of such “unavailability and unwillingness”).

Our positive experience engaging Senator Grassley in support of immigration reform teaches us that advocating for justice should start at home, working to counter the unjust treatment of your immediate neighbors. If you do that faithfully and well, you may cause a ripple effect far beyond where you live. You may not have to go to Washington to influence what happens in Washington.

— Harold Heie is a Senior Fellow at The Colossian Forum and the Center for Faith & Inquiry at Gordon College and a former trustee of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”