The Great Reversal on Immigration Reform

I have often expressed my dismay at a political system where politicians focus on getting elected rather than on governing. That brokenness reached new levels in the recent great reversal on the part of numerous leaders of the Republican Party relative to immigration reform. But let me start at the beginning.

In the fall of 2012, a number of us who live in Sioux County in northwest Iowa decided that we needed to speak out on behalf of the growing number of new Hispanic neighbors in our communities who had no voices in the political process. Prompted by our commitment to the teaching of Jesus that those who claim to be his followers need to care for the  marginalized in society (Matthew 25), we started by holding meetings in a local church where we talked with (not at or about) many of our new Hispanic neighbors.

Their stories broke our hearts; especially stories of the ways in which current immigration laws are decimating many of their families, separating parents from each other and from their children. We could no longer remain silent. So, we launched an electronic petition drive to gather signatures of those who would support our concrete proposal to “Fix our Immigration System” (which can be accessed at www.ouriowaneighbors). We gathered over 800 signatures.

We sent our petition to the offices of Christie Vilsack and Steve King, who were vying for the 4th Congressional District seat in Iowa as the Democratic and Republican candidates respectively. We got the attention of Ms. Vilsack who graciously met with 22 of us to listen to and discuss our concerns. Despite his strong, sometimes vitriolic, rhetoric opposing any version of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Congressman King indicated the possibility of meeting with us, but that did not materialize before the November 6 election (which he won handily). We hope this will soon happen.

Why did we take this political initiative on the part of our new Hispanic neighbors? Surely not to get elected, since with the exception of one participant who was seeking re-election for a local office, the rest of us were not seeking to get elected to political offices. We did this because we believed it was the “right thing to do” as our response to the call of Jesus to “love our neighbors” (Mark 12: 31).

A few weeks ago, the great reversal took place. Prior to November 6, the idea of immigration reform was anathema to the most influential members of the Republican Party, epitomized by Mitt Romney’s call for “self-deportation” for undocumented immigrants. Shortly after Election Day, numerous leaders in the Republican Party joined in a groundswell of public assertions that now is the time for immigration reform.

It is not appropriate for me to judge the motives of others. I only have access to what people say and do. Therefore, I listened intently to the reasons these Republican leaders gave for this great reversal. I waited, in vain, to hear just one Republican politician or pundit say that our country now needs immigration reform because it is the “right thing to do” to help foster the unity and flourishing of our Hispanic neighbors. The reason given by everyone I heard speak was some variation of the theme that a primary cause of Mitt Romney losing the election was because he garnered just 27 % of the Hispanic vote; and if Republicans want to regain the presidency they need to get more Hispanic votes, which could be brought about by now pushing for immigration reform.

I am pleased that immigration reform will be on the national political agenda in the near future, even if not always for the right reasons. Of course, it is not only Republicans who have stood in the way of significant reform of immigration laws the past four years. I am disappointed that president Obama broke his promise to address immigration issues during his first term. I look forward with anticipation to seeing what “common ground” emerges as Republicans and Democrats address immigration reforms during Obama’s second term.

But it still grieves me that the reasons given by Republican leaders for this great reversal on immigration reform once again focused on getting elected, rather than on what the focus should be: governing in a way that helps all Americans to flourish. I hope and pray for the day when a focus on fostering the “common good” will be the rule and not the exception in politics.