Until President Obama gave his State of the Union speech in January, immigration advocates, Latino leaders and millions who voted for him based on his promise to push for comprehensive reform were hopeful that he would soon lead the charge on the issue. They waited while the economic crisis demanded the president's attention, as did the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then came healthcare reform, and more waiting.
But when the best Obama could do was to pay lip service to immigration reform in his speech -- just 36 words making no specific promises, saying only that the country must secure its borders and ensure that "people who play by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation" -- advocates decided it was time to change tactics. No more waiting.
On Sunday, tens of thousands of people are expected to converge on the National Mall to demand action in Congress and personal leadership from the president. More than 800 buses from 33 states are en route to the March for America; other marchers are carpooling or traveling by plane. A delegation from New York is walking. Many are United States citizens -- the children, spouses and co-workers of undocumented immigrants -- and alongside them will be immigration advocates, members of labor unions and representatives of dozens of faith organizations and civil rights groups.
It is time to turn up the heat on the issue. It is time to remind the nation of the economic, political and moral imperative of reforming the immigration system. All Americans are less secure because millions of people are living in the shadows -- the country should know, as precisely as possible, who is here. Illegal immigrants labor in an underground economy, essential to our workforce but vulnerable to exploitation. Thousands of our best and brightest students, brought to this country as small children, have limited access to higher education and legal employment.
It is also time, advocates say, to remind Washington of Latino political power. If reform does not pass, they say, those who stand in the way will pay at the polls. And lest the president forget, they add that he won 67% of Latino voters and carried states he could not have won without their ballots, including Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.
Still, the political reality is that reform will be a steep challenge, not least because Democrats, seriously threatened in the November elections, have more incentive to be cautious than courageous.
Marchers, however, want progress now, and they're already showing that they cannot be ignored. On Thursday, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) announced the details of a reform plan they've been working on for months, which many march organizers would like to see as the basis for legislation. And that same afternoon, Obama finally pledged to move reform forward "this year."
The Graham-Schumer framework is promising. It not only addresses the way the United States deals with undocumented immigrantsalready living here, but takes serious steps to manage the future flow of illegal immigrants -- something Congress did not do in the 1986 amnesty or in the proposed reform that failed to pass in 2006.
Real reform means ending the cycle of Band-Aid fixes, more illegal immigration and political turmoil. We can do that by creating mechanisms to match U.S. demand for labor with supply, such as the establishment of a guest-worker program. We can address the backlog of family reunification requests so that people who are eligible to come legally don't despair at the decade-long wait and enter the country on their own. And vigorous employer enforcement -- Schumer and Graham suggest biometric Social Security cards -- is also key.
The marchers are correct: Reform is urgently needed. All that's missing is the political will to do what is right.