President Obama very, very briefly mentioned immigration reform in his State of the Union. Opponents of comprehensive reform argue that given the state of the economy and the political shot heard round the world in Massachusetts, this is no time for another controversial initiative. They are wrong. Now is the time to push a bill through Congress. A unique coalition needs to be convinced of this.
Democrats should not delay because they will not have this much political power again for quite some time. Immigration advocates should tell Democrats again and again about John Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” because a vote for comprehensive reform in this environment will be a brave vote indeed. It may be a suicidal vote.
Why should it be taken? Because this is the vote for which these members of Congress have labored their whole lives: the kamikaze vote in which the politician is extinguished by the cause for which he or she fights. Most politicians don’t become president. The measure of a political career is the meaningful stands on principle one takes, not the total number of elections won.
What about the president? If I can borrow a phrase that was undoubtedly used in many speeches honoring Martin Luther King Jr. around the time of his birthday, now is the time for Barack Obama to push this bill because it is his best chance to pass it. To this point Obama’s stance on immigration has been similar to President Kennedy’s very equivocal support for civil rights: no profile in courage.
At some point, and that point being right now, Obama must decide that the moral case for immigration reform trumps the political risk. Now is the time to pass a bill because after the mid-term elections Obama and the Democrats will emerge weakened. Now is the time because even without a bill there is a real chance that there will not be a second term to try to make a go at immigration.
Now is the time because it could be that a nativist Republican will defeat Obama and start a push for a modern-day trail of tears through deportation. Now is the time because although President Bush made a noble effort on behalf of undocumented immigrants, by the time he did get a second term it was too late to get anything done. The chance had passed. Finally, now is the time because justice delayed is justice denied.
In fact, immigration reform now may be better politics for Obama than it seems at first glance. From the point of view of Latino groups, now is the time to make good on promises made in the campaign. They have grown increasingly frustrated with Obama’s lukewarm support for their cause after they turned out for him in large numbers.
If they sit out of future elections, particularly in the all-important state of Florida, it will hurt the Democrats. Additionally, immigration reform may be better politics than health care because it is cheap and does not cost trillions of dollars at a time when the economy is in such dire straits and the deficit is so high.
Now is also a time in which Republicans can quite possibly vote for immigration reform and get a political pass. President Obama has sagging poll numbers for many reasons that have nothing to do with immigration. Republicans can follow the lead of John McCain and Lindsey Graham and hit Obama hard on health care, taxes and foreign policy while quietly working with him on immigration. When the Democratic president is unpopular, one may be able to retain conservative credentials without being anti-immigrant.
Finally, now is the time for evangelical Christians to unite behind comprehensive reform. To this point, some evangelicals have actually opposed reform, but evangelicals are the most crucial piece of a potentially powerful comprehensive reform coalition – the tipping point, the game-changers, the first domino.
When evangelical opposition falls, followed by the South, followed by the Republican Party, you have a bill that can pass. There is no sound biblical reason to oppose immigration reform. Scripture tells us to “love the alien living among us as ourselves.” We are admonished to treat aliens with kindness no less than 28 times in the Old Testament, according to a heart-breaking new book titled “Trails of Hope and Terror” by Miguel De La Torre.
In Matthew 25, Christ comes to us in the form of the stranger, and our own eternal fate hangs on our response to him. And so it is for the soul of our nation, as we are called to stop the endless, needless delays in doing the right thing on immigration reform.
Sean McKenzie, a Methodist, teaches high school in Calhoun, Ga.