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(Photo: flickr/cc/Light Brigading)

Immigration Reform Is Dead––And That's a Good Thing

Matthew Kovac

With immigration reform stalled in the House and prospects for passing a bill growing slimmer as the border crisis heats up, frustration has been mounting among immigrant justice advocates.

Staunch reform proponent U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez recently denounced House Republicans for effectively killing the bill. Last week, with tensions rising over the influx of Central American children across the southern border, Sen. Dick Durbin told CBS’Face the Nation that he was “fed up” with Republican intransigence.

The reform bill may not be revived until the next president is inaugurated in January 2017, according to The New York Times. But for those who claim to support a just immigration policy, the demise of the current reform legislation should be cause for celebration, not outrage.

The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (H.R. 15) has been advertised as a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States – many of them young. Yet the strict employment and income requirements present in both the House and Senate bills could disqualify up to 40 percent of undocumented immigrants for being low-income or unemployed longer than two months, according to a report on the Senate bill by the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law.

Far from granting universal citizenship, the report shows how reform will divide the immigrant community along class lines, leaving upward of four million people undocumented and at risk of deportation.

Immigration reform would have even more disastrous effects on those who have yet to settle in the United States.

H.R. 15 would expand the Border Patrol and deploy National Guard troops to the border, making the journey even more perilous for immigrants like the 57,000 unaccompanied children who have crossed the border since October.

As activists with the humanitarian group No More Deaths wrote in The Nation last year, existing reform proposals do nothing to address the driving forces behind migration, from poverty created by U.S.-backed free trade agreements to violence in Honduras stemming from the 2009 military coup tacitly supported by the United States.

By militarizing the border without addressing these root causes, immigration reform will only worsen a humanitarian crisis that has already claimed at least 6,000 lives over the past two decades, according to No More Deaths.

Despite these deficiencies, mainstream immigration groups continue to view the existing reform framework as a solid foundation on which to build. Few national immigration advocacy groups have opposed the reform outright, according to The Nation’s Aura Bogado, with most remaining critically supportive of the legislation.

The National Immigration Law Center, for example, criticized some elements of the Senate bill passed last summer while still maintaining its passage was a “positive first step” toward an overhaul of the immigration system.

What such advocates fail to realize is that immigration reform will not be the first step toward a just immigration policy, but the last. One need look no further than the watered-down Affordable Care Act, which removed healthcare from the political agenda and sidelined advocates of farther-reaching reforms, to understand how this process works.

Once immigration policy has been officially “reformed,” it too will be struck from the agenda, not to be revisited or improved until the next crisis arises. Just as there has been no serious discussion in Washington of transitioning to single-payer in the wake of the ACA, there is little hope that passing a fundamentally flawed immigration reform bill will lay the groundwork for better reforms in the future.

Faced with these troubling realities, immigrant justice advocates must reconsider their “reform at any cost” mentality.

It is understandable for activists to want something to show for years of struggle. But passing the reform bill as it exists today would constitute a victory only in the most hollow sense, achieving limited gains for some immigrants at the expense of many others. The reform’s brutal border security provisions and classist path to citizenship would seriously harm immigrant communities while undermining the solidarity needed to resist the onslaught.

With the mirage of immigration reform now receding into the distance, activists should redirect their energies to more meaningful struggles, like combating the Obama administration’s record-breaking deportation policies.

As it stands now, the only winners of the immigration reform push will be the politicians: Democrats will achieve a symbolic victory, Republicans will make their party more palatable to Latino voters, and the people at the heart of the legislation will continue to suffer.

Now that would be a real defeat.


This piece was first published by The Chicago Bureau.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Matthew Kovac

Matthew Kovac is an award-winning independent journalist and political commentator who has written for The Chicago Reporter and The Chicago Innocence Project. For more of his work, visit and follow him @MatthewKovac.

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