Engaging Politicians about Immigration Reform

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, the potential success of which remains to be seen.

It appears that we first got the attention of Senator Charles Grassley from Iowa, the leading Republican on the Judiciary Committee that is debating this proposal, when a good number of the 800 plus local residents who had signed a petition “To Fix Our Broken Immigration System” (still available for signature at www.ouriowaneighbors.org) 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 had called. This led to the Senator agreeing to a telephone conference call with a representative group of local supporters of this Bipartisan Framework.

So, on March 4, seven of us, representative of the agricultural, educational, and faith communities in Sioux County, had a cordial and respectful conversation with Senator Grassley, and his assistant, Kathy Neubel. We were encouraged by his stating up-front that he was on the line primarily to listen to us. And we gladly embraced his commitment to listening. Our ensuing conversation leads us to make two recommendations for your consideration if and when you engage your political representatives in support of comprehensive immigration reform.

Speak or write from your heart about your first-hand experiences with your immigrant neighbors. I am guessing that many politicians who will decide the fate of the current proposal for immigration reform 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 the to vote for us next time”). Rather, they are flesh-and-blood human beings whose pressing needs for assistance and dignity must be addressed.

Those on our end of the telephone line were eloquent and passionate in sharing their joyful and painful 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 proposed new legislation addresses 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 believe that this reminder should count for something as the Senator considers the total proposed framework.

Allow me to conclude by reporting on one “disconnect” in our conversation. Both Senator Grassley and his assistant expressed the view that the Democrats are succumbing to pressure from the unions to NOT make provision for the hiring of lower-skilled immigrant workers. I am not in a position to address the adequacy, or not, of that view. But that is clearly NOT what the Bipartisan Framework proposes. A clergyman on our end of the telephone line graciously quoted, verbatim, the following words from the proposed Bipartisan Framework: “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”).