After witnessing an election that may shift most of the country and the federal government sharply to the right on immigration reform, I desperately needed a diversion. Preparing for two upcoming speaking gigs filled the bill. On Monday, I will speak on immigration to the Roman Catholic clergy of Orange County, California, and a week later, on the same topic at an “Intensive Institute for Journalists” — “The Changing Face of America: Going Beyond the Rhetoric on Immigration,” hosted by the UC Berkeley Institute of Journalism.

As I began to consider how to offer insights of value to these very different groups, an unexpected letter arrived from New York. Federal Judge Kimba Wood, a onetime Clinton nominee for Attorney General who voluntarily withdrew from Senate consideration, had read my recent post and wrote to chide me. (It’s not every day that I receive a dressing-down from a federal judge.)

Judge Wood disabused me of the view that she should be lumped with other famous folks who “tripped on illegal immigration” and whose “hiring of an unauthorized foreign housekeeper, nanny or landscaper . . . [toppled or shook their] grand career plans.” Citing a contemporaneous New York Times article, Judge Wood noted that she complied with all reporting requirements, including disclosures to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and that as a result, “there was nothing ‘unauthorized’ about [the judge’s] hiring of [her] son’s nanny” who “still works for [her] and has become a U.S. citizen.” Thus, she asked that before I ever include her among those who hired an unauthorized alien, I review her files.

While her nanny was indeed unauthorized for employment, the judge’s hiring of the woman was not unlawful. This is because it would be yet another eight months (with President Reagan’s signing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986) before Congress made it illegal for U.S. employers to hire workers while knowing that the individuals lacked work permission. Rather than quibble, and try to defend my technically accurate post, I now apologize to Judge Wood for casually lumping her into a category in which she did not squarely fit.

I also thank this jurist for helping me to put the current contretemps over immigration in historical perspective and to visualize a better denouement. Once before, as now, this nation was divided over immigration, yet a determined president (from California!), with help from humane pragmatists in Congress, passed a grand bargain that allowed for “legalization” of undocumented foreign citizens (it was never called “amnesty”) and sanctions for employers with guilty knowledge who hire them.

Thus, the post-election analyses this week on the fate of immigration reform in the Republican-bolstered 112th Congress seemed altogether too Washington-centric and myopic for my taste. Insiders from business groups and community-based, grass-roots organizations both offered uniformly glum predictions:

  • Expect nothing on immigration from the lame duck Congress.
  • With two unsympathetic Republicans leading on immigration issues (Lamar Smith likely heading the House Judiciary Committee and Steve King the probable heir to Zoe Lofgren in the Immigration Subcommittee), anticipate a unilateral focus on border enforcement and a near-total disregard for comprehensive immigration reform or improvements to the legal immigration system.
  • Do not be surprised if anti-immigration laws are tacked on like stealth earmarks to omnibus or appropriations bills, or if immigration bills with no chance of passage are put up for votes merely to score partisan points in future attack ads.
  • Plan to spend time educating new senators and representatives on the importance of immigrants and temporary workers to job creation and economic stimulus.
  • Anticipate a paucity of hope on immigration reform until after the presidential elections.

My view from California, however, which (like other western states) bucked the red tide, is more optimistic. Hispanics resurrected Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from virtually certain retirement, and balked at electing Meg Whitman whose seeming heartlessness on the fate of her undocumented housekeeper repulsed many Latinos. Moreover, Coloradans put to pasture Tom Tancredo, the poster-child of venomous xenophobia and anti-immigrant hate speech.

Thus, the Latino-offending vitriol never paid off (Reid’s opponent, Sharron Angle, told Hispanic students that “you look a little Asian to me;” Tancredo accused his opponent of supporting “sanctuary cities;” Whitman, speaking of her housekeeper, said, “she should be deported”).

While Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee recently asked the Obama administration to estimate the cost of deporting all unauthorized immigrants in this country — approximately $80 billion, according to a Los Angeles Times source from within the administration, this simply won’t happen. Currently, with a budget of $5.7 billion per annum (the most ever), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can only remove each year about 4% of the 11 million undocumented (390,000 people yearly). Given that Republicans are all about deficit reduction, it would take over 14 years under current funding to deport them all.

The problem of fixing the immigration system will not go away. The voices of the growing Hispanic demographic will only grow louder (witness the confrontation between a DREAM Act supporter and Russell Pearce, proponent of Arizona’s SB1070, now newly elected President of that state’s senate).

The competitive position of the U.S. will continue to slide until improvements to the legal immigration system are made that enable innovators, entrepreneurs and strivers to grow the economy. As both parties endeavor to create jobs (and, with luck and effort, to restore a good measure of prosperity), the fear level of the American people will likely subside, and be replaced by our historic hospitality to immigrants in better economic times. The election, in my view, revealed how little patience the voters have with diddling, dawdling and dithering incumbents. The same electoral outcome will likely be repeated next time, unless politicians perk up and produce positive results.

Persistence and patience will both be necessary. The civil rights movement did not succeed in one fell swoop; neither will the effort to craft humane, pragmatic and economy-growing immigration laws.

I know now what I’ll say to the journalists. I’ll explain in detail the many ways that immigration in this country is in such an advanced state of decrepitude that it is not only eating at our soul, but also preventing us from achieving economic prosperity and social rapprochement — both of which are readily within our grasp. And I’ll urge them to shine the bright light of truth on our dsyfunctional system, while outing immigration hypocrites along the way.

I know now what I’ll tell the clergy. I will describe the challenges obstructing enactment of immigration reform laws, urge them to join the struggle, and pray with them the encouraging words of a Franciscan Benediction:

May God bless you with discomfort

At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,

So that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger

At injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,

So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears

To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,

So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them

And turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness

To believe that you can make a difference in the world,

So that you can do what others claim cannot be done

To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.