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Which Side Will Get the Blame for the Failure of Immigration Reform?

Adam Serwer has an interesting piece at The American Prospect breaking down the debate over how to reform immigration and explaining how both Republicans and Democrats get it wrong with regard to Latino voters. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but I’ll paraphrase a few main points: Republicans have made a misguided demand that border security be the first step to any immigration legislation. Democrats, meanwhile, allowed it to happen — all the while counting on Republican nativism to push Latino voters to the left rather than pushing hard for successful reform.

The result, Serwer argues, is a gridlock that likely will remain until after 2012:

“Immigration is a Rubik’s Cube really; in order to solve the puzzle, you can’t just be focused on one side of it,” [the Immigration Policy Center's Mary] Giovagnoli says. “What we’ve done is focus exclusively on one side of the puzzle, the interior-border-enforcement side of things.” [...]

Pouring money into border security doesn’t stop illegal immigration, which only leads to more demand for border security. The conditions for reforming the immigration system in a manner that allows the government more control and oversight over the migrant labor force are thus never reached. This is the enforcement paradox. John McCain once understood it as well as anyone. He told his Senate colleagues in 2006, “As long as there is a need for workers in the United States, and people are willing to cross the desert to make a better life for their families, our border will never be secure.”

Yet, perhaps because of strong popular support for enforcement, politicians cling to the misguided notion that these policies are a stepping stone to real reform. “I think what we’ve seen is that the border-security part had to come first,” says Doug Holtz-Eakin, who was an adviser to McCain during his presidential campaign. “Having heard the public on that, everyone’s working on that piece with everything else on the back burner.”

The problem is that it’s not yet clear how any of this will shake out — and to his credit, Serwer doesn’t argue that it is. He contends that immigration reform with some type of path to legal status (or amnesty, according to the Republican messaging) will eventually happen. Given the large number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. and the cost of full deportation, this seems reasonable. When this happens, though, neither party is poised to be a clear winner for long-term success among Latino voters, he argues.

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