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

Principle & Practice

Catherine E. Wilson


July 6, 2012

By Catherine E. Wilson

Two kinds of markers reliably adorn the geographic landscape: historic markers, which point out important places, dates and events, and mile markers, which signal the distance needed to travel in order to arrive at one’s destination.   

President Barack Obama’s decision on June 15, 2012, to suspend temporarily the deportation of young, undocumented individuals and the Supreme Court’s ruling on June 25, 2012, regarding the constitutionality of SB 1070, an Arizona immigration enforcement initiative, are prominent examples of both historic and mile markers in the U.S. immigration landscape.  These high-profile June decisions are historic markers, driving home the centrality of federal decision-making in the U.S. immigration narrative. Yet, they also resemble mile markers, signifying the amount of work still needed to arrive at the destination of comprehensive immigration reform.   

On June 15, Obama announced that the Department of Homeland Security would exercise “prosecutorial discretion,” providing young, undocumented individuals with a two-year reprieve from deportation proceedings. Emphasizing that this decision was “not a permanent fix,” Obama urged Congress to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. A bipartisan work in progress for over 10 years, this Act consistently has evaded passage in both chambers. Under the 2010 version of the DREAM Act, undocumented young adults who have honorably served in the military or attended at least two years of college—and met the eligibility requirements for naturalization—could receive conditional nonimmigrant status and become candidates for U.S citizenship.

One week later, the Supreme Court upheld only one of the four contested provisions of Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070.  Writing on behalf of the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy maintained that “federal power to determine immigration policy” is not only “well settled,” but also “extensive and complex.”  In the Justices’ view, upholding Section 2(B) of SB 1070, which permits state officers to make a “reasonable attempt…to determine the immigration status” of those stopped, detained or arrested, did not diminish federal authority in immigration matters, but reinforced the prevalence of consultation and information-sharing between federal and state officials in the immigration system. 

While the Hispanic faith-based community instantly welcomed Obama’s federal immigration action, they reported a more-than-partial victory in the Supreme Court ruling. Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, praised the Supreme Court for its assertion of federal primacy over immigration matters, while remaining “hopeful that all laws will respect human dignity and not lead to racial profiling.” Characterizing Obama’s decision as an “important action,” the Most Reverend Jose Gomez, chairman of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration, also remarked that such a decision should not been seen as a substitute for the DREAM Act or comprehensive immigration reform, both of which demand immediate, bipartisan action, he said. Meanwhile, Rev. Luis Cortes, president of Esperanza, a leading Hispanic Evangelical faith-based network, was cautiously optimistic about the Obama decision, deeming the announcement as a mile marker, or in Cortes’ words, “the first step of many to resolve the problems of our broken system holistically and across the board, and to usher in a new day of order, peace, safety, and collective well-being in our great nation of immigrants.” 

We can learn two lessons from these June decisions. First, the U.S. must build an immigration system that goes beyond temporary, stop-gap measures. This system, based on long-term reform, would respond to both humanitarian concerns (family reunification) and pragmatic, economic needs (employment-based visas). At issue here is what to properly call such reform, since the term “comprehensive” is currently out of political fashion. Second, at the federal level, it is clear that immigration policy must be fashioned along bipartisan lines. A bipartisan effort would serve as a sign of respect to the high percentage of Hispanic immigrants who self-identify as politically independent and would reduce the appearance of political pandering. 

As historic makers, these June 2012 decisions have reinforced federal supremacy over immigration. More importantly, the decisions are also significant mile markers, indicating that there is far more terrain to cover in the struggle for immigration reform. The question now before the American public is how the federal government can chart a new course on immigration after years of political struggle, stalemate and fatigue. If for now that only means adopting incremental policies, at the very least that signals forward movement. 

—Catherine E. Wilson is Associate Professor of Political Science and Nonprofit Coordinator of the MPA Program at Villanova University.

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