CHICAGO — To some, the handful of calls for amnesty for undocumented immigrants in the days after Republicans were rebuked at the voting booth momentarily made it seem as though a bipartisan immigration reform was but a mere formality. The GOP, the notion went, was ready to make amends with Latinos.
Needless to say, this was a ridiculous assumption on two counts. The Republican Party was never going to offer full, unconditional amnesty to the nation’s undocumented immigrants in order to win Latino votes in 2016. And certainly, Hispanic voters who see themselves as Democrats wouldn’t blindly rush into the GOP’s arms even if an amnesty were granted.
Still, the alarming speed with which the Republican ACHIEVE Act reached non-starter status says everything about how little compromise actually will go into any proposed immigration reform plan.
At root, compromise is when everyone gets some of what they want and no one gets all of what they wish for. But the Democrats, and the immigrant activist groups that support them, have consistently gambled on the losing strategy of not being willing to consider anything less than what amounts to a full amnesty.
The ACHIEVE Act, the recently announced Republican alternative to the DREAM Act, was dead on arrival for most Democrats because it doesn’t automatically lead to citizenship as the DREAM Act does. Still, the Republican plan would extend new visas to people younger than 28 who were brought to the United States before age 14 and have no serious criminal records.
You would think that the advocacy groups who have spent the better part of seven years thundering about the torment that young illegal immigrants experience because of their unlawful status would at least be open to the possibility of extended legal residency and the ability to work.
But no. Let me summarize the grievances that advocacy organizations are leveling against this shot at a full lifetime of legal status for these young people:
— “Arbitrary” age and educational timelines would unfairly deny eligibility to some young people, as would the ACHIEVE Act’s restrictive good conduct provisions.
— The act would not ensure that students’ educations are affordable because they would be denied guaranteed loans and work-study programs, and there’s no accompanying provision to provide incentives to states to grant in-state tuition to qualifying students.
— The application fees are expensive, while new bureaucratic requirements would make the process complex and burdensome for both students and federal agencies.
— The act would not provide health care or nutrition assistance, which impact educational success.
The ACHIEVE Act amounts to, in the words of United We Dream, an immigrant youth advocacy organization, “a cynical political gesture.” Daniel Rodriguez, an activist with United We Dream, described it to a Latino news outlet as “a slap in the face.” Others have started calling it the “Achieve Nothing Act.”
What all these remarkably negative overreactions fail to put into context is that similar outrages — about age cutoffs, lack of government benefits and other provisions — were part of the debate over the DREAM Act and will surface again in any wider Democratic-sponsored immigration legislation.
For instance, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus announced its broad principles for an immigration reform plan. I can anticipate the howls of disdain once details emerge because we’ve heard them before.
The first tenet alone has the potential to divide proponents. It asks for “undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to register with the federal government, submit to fingerprinting and a criminal background check, learn English and American civics, and pay taxes to contribute fully and legally to our economy and earn a path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship.”
There will be show-stopping concerns that registration will put immigrants at risk for deportation, that the criminal background checks will be faulty — a consistent charge against employment verification systems, which are also part of the caucus’s principles — and fears that English and civics exams will disqualify people. It’s a given that any application fees for citizenship will be seen as prohibitively high, and waiting periods too lengthy.
It doesn’t have to be this way. But both sides have to start finding a middle ground with the understanding that unless they’re prepared to come away with more than they have now but less than they’d like, any movement on immigration will go nowhere fast.
Esther Cepeda is a syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino contributor.