RI Lawmakers should stay clear of immigration issues

Feb 4, 2013

For nearly a decade every Rhode Island legislative session has brought a florid and divisive debate over immigration issues. First it was whether the state should require all businesses to check the citizenship status of employees by using a federal computer database known as E-Verify.

Then came the battle over whether our state should allow a local version of the Dream Act, which allows children brought to our state and nation illegally to qualify for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. When the state Board of Governors for Higher Education put that provision into effect for illegal immigrant students who qualified for admission to Rhode Island College, the University of Rhode Island and Community College of Rhode Island, the Assembly responded by abolishing the higher ed board.

Now, with prospects ripe for a rational immigration overhaul percolating in Washington this year would be a good time for the Smith Hill gang to ignore immigration issues and the nasty rhetoric that always accompanies this topic.

President Barack Obama has proposed immigration changes that include such provisions as a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, strengthening border security and cracking down on companies that hire undocumented workers. The remarkable element of the Obama proposal is that it is similar to a plan advanced in 2006 by Republican President George W. Bush. And there is movement in the U.S. Senate for an agreement on immigration by a bi-partisan group of Republicans and Democrats. Rhode Island’s all Democratic Washington delegation is supportive of the president’s stance.

Immigration change will take some serious give-and-take among Republicans and Democrats, as well as the recognition that there are regional topics that must be dealt with. Residents of states along the southern border have legitimate worries about border enforcement. And for every governor like Arizona’s Jan Brewer, who galvanizes political support with harsh anti-immigrant policies, there is a Rick Perry of Texas who favors amnesty.

Federal action could even make the polarizing issue of E-Verify moot in Rhode Island. There has been talk of requiring the E-Verify system nationwide. So long as the kinks can be worked out of the database to ensure that immigrants were not denied jobs unfairly, it would be far better to mandate this nationally rather than state-by-state.

In recent years, the Rhode Island push for a state E-Verify law has been opposed by a coalition that agrees on almost nothing else: the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Chambers of Commerce, the state AFL_CIO and the Roman Catholic Church. Labor, the ACLU and the church don’t think it is fair and business leaders don’t want an extra ribbon of red tape in a state that critics say already wraps business around too much of it.

Why would we want to establish a quilt work of state immigrant hiring regulations, especially in cozy New England, which would force a business with branches in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut to deal with different hiring rules in each state?

Recent elections have changed the local and national landscape on immigration. In Rhode Island, the emerging Latino political muscle has helped elect the first Hispanic surnamed mayor of Providence. The 2012 presidential election has forced Republicans to deal with the reality of a Latino vote that went overwhelmingly to President Obama.

There is still hard-core opposition to any policies that attempt to deal compassionately with the reality of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. But even these voices are ebbing. In Rhode Island, the harshest anti-immigrant rancor has traditionally come from talk radio, which in local politics is slouching towards irrelevancy. All of the candidates touted by conservative talk radio in the last two election cycles in Rhode Island have been doomed to defeat.

Immigration policy has traditionally been a federal prerogative. Maybe for once the gang in Congress can shed its dysfunctional reputation and forge a forward-looking immigration regime that can win acceptance from San Francisco Bay to Narragansett Bay. A great byproduct of a rational national policy would be turning down the volume on this topic in Rhode Island, a state that is one of America’s testaments to assimilating generation after generation of immigrants.

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