[A]lmost every time I travel there . . . something comes over me. Inside the Beltway, talk can give off the illusion of action. The mouthing of words, however powerful on the printed page or eloquent when spoken, is seen . . . as equivalent to progress.
During my latest trip, however, a hopeful, reality-based euphoria replaced the usual “illusion of action,” as I attended a National Strategy Session on comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) held Dec. 4 and 5 and sponsored by ForgingConsensus.org. For the first time in ages, conservatives and progressives joined together in candid and helpful conversation.
Representatives from national religious organizations, law enforcement and commerce (“Bibles, Badges and Business“) spoke eloquently about the urgency to enact CIR and offered common-sense wisdom that acknowledged just how surreal our immigration policies have become. As Jim Wallis, CEO of Sojourners — “a national Christian organization committed to faith in action for social justice” — remarked, our system causes people to be “stuck between ‘No Trespass’ and ‘Help Wanted’ signs.”
ForgingConsensus.org also arranged a full day of visits to Republican and Democratic lawmakers and their staffs. I joined a group that included Mark Shurtleff, Utah’s Republican Attorney General, Dr. Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Robert Gittelson, a business executive and founder of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.
The meetings offered many new insights beyond merely the post-election recognition by the GOP that now is the time for Congress to reform our immigration laws. One staffer, counsel for a senior Republican, offered a play-by-play, inside-baseball forecast of alternative scenarios but concluded glumly (as I paraphrase):
No matter what the Republicans do, they will not win. If CIR passes, the Democrats will get most of the credit. If it fails, the Republicans will be blamed.
A female Member of Congress — a Democrat — posed the challenge this way (I’m still paraphrasing):
I try to start every negotiation by trying to think like the other side. The only way CIR will pass is if Democrats figure out what the Republicans want. They need to show their constituents that the bill that passes promotes conservative values.
A newish GOP lawmaker suggested several core values he believes his fellow conservative legislators and constituents could embrace (again I paraphrase):
We would support small-government immigration solutions, family values, entrepreneurship, innovation, and power sharing on immigration between the federal and state governments (perhaps a pilot program in which the feds continue to do the security screening, border protection and administering of the immigration system but states get to experiment with block grants of authority to issue temporary-worker and green-card visas based on local conditions and needs).
The two days of strategizing with out-of-towners and engaging with Beltway insiders convinced me that CIR — whether in a grand bargain or in a series of coordinated, interlocking votes on pieces of connected legislation — enjoys its best prospects for near-term passage in several years.
The undocumented population, though shrinking from 12 million to 11.1 million between 2007 and 2011 according to recent census data, consists mostly of “mixed-status” families that include U.S. citizens and permanent residents, many of whom are children. This population will not go away by self-deportation; they will remain together with or without new laws. Other than hate-spewing nativists like Ann Coulter and Tom Tancredo, Republicans recognize that the undocumented are human beings, not a “plague of locust[s].” The consensus of economists (other than Karl Marx) is that widening the entryway to our borders will foster prosperity. An “Immigration Hawk,” Jim DeMint, is leaving the Senate. A new “Gang of Eight” on immigration has formed in the Senate (Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, and Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mike Lee of Utah and Sen.-elect Jeff Flake of Arizona). The House is meeting in small groups behind closed doors — both leading lights and new faces.
As Utah AG Mark Shurtleff told the audience at the National Strategy Session, now is a “kairos moment” for immigration reform, or as Wikipedia would say, “a moment of indeterminate time in which something special happens.” Kairos, he noted, also carries a religious significance in that kairos time should be treated as a providential call to action.
This trip to Washington — probably because Americans from out of town and from diverse walks of life joined in — was different. Boots on the town seem to have displaced partisan positioning and lofty rhetoric divorced from action.
For immigration reform, this kairos call to action, at this auspicious moment, must involve people of good will and sincere motivation, acting inclusively, with country before party, to promote our shared core values — economic strength, family unity, worker protection, freedom of expression, and religion (or of no religion), border integrity, the rule of law, and human dignity.
I feel better about the city, and more hopeful for the country.