Arizona’s new pending law has propelled federal comprehensive immigration reform into the spotlight, but the stakes are particularly high in New Jersey. The Pew Center reported in April 2008 that in N.J. we have the sixth largest number of unauthorized immigrants – approximately 550,000 people, or 6.4% of our total population. In addition, we have the fourth highest per cent of unauthorized immigrants in our labor force – 9.2%, or 425,000 in a total pool of 4,588,000. As a point of comparison, based on March 2008 data collected by the Census Bureau, the Pew Center estimates that unauthorized immigrants are 4% of the nation’s population and 5.4% of its workforce.
The Star Ledger indicates the most recent NJ immigration rally took place yesterday in Newark. The Star Ledger also reported on April 25 on an event in Elizabeth: “Citing the need to correct serious flaws in the nation’s immigration system, hundreds of people came to a church for a town meeting attended by Sen. Robert Menendez and Rep. Albio Sires.” Many New Jerseyans attended a recent rally in Washington DC, and other events are planned in May throughout our state.
Senators Menendez and Schumer put together a 26-page Conceptual Proposal for Immigration Reform. The plan includes stepped up efforts at securing the border first, increased detection, apprehension, and removal of unlawfully present persons and ending illegal employment through biometric employment verification. It also provides a path toward citizenship with mandatory registration, acceptance of responsibility, and administration of punishment for unauthorized immigrants.
Nonetheless, support in congress has been luke warm at best. Portions of the plan that create a pathway for citizenship are disliked by cultural/nativist Republicans and other portions that make hiring of inexpensive labor more difficult are disliked by traditional businessmen Republicans. Likewise, Democrats are suspicious about a biometric social security card and concerned that a more open immigration policy can not co-exist with a robust safety net for all. In the midst of midterm elections, the public’s vociferous opinions on both sides have rendered most legislators frightened and spineless. Indeed, President Obama said on Thursday there “may not be an appetite” in Congress to deal with immigration.
We send people to Washington to deal with these tough issues. All our NJ legislators and our president must demonstrate leadership, not excuses. We now have a template for reform, one that can jumpstart negotiations and lead to a final bill. Ironically, the fact that different people dislike the proposal for different reasons is all the more indication that the plan is not just a Republican or a Democratic plan but one aimed at a fair resolution for all involved.
No matter how difficult it might be to pass this reform in the midst of midterm electioneering it is unlikely to be any easier after the elections. Indeed if Democrats lose seats in the Senate and House, the gridlock will be worse, and progressives’ hopes for meaningful reform will be dashed. Concerned NJ residents should keep up their rallies and demands. Legislators and President Obama should shore up their courage. The time is now.