In 2006, the last time Congress took a serious look at comprehensive immigration reform, hundreds of thousands of immigrants, legal and illegal, marched through the streets of the nation's cities. The resulting media coverage was filled with stories about real people — brown people! — whose lives would be affected by the proposed legislation. It was one of those rare moments when the public could witness the intersection of grass-roots movements, insider political maneuvering and their human consequences. But that year's push for reform wound up going nowhere.
So far in the current debate over immigration reform, the immigrant story you're most likely to hear is that of the Cuban-American senator from Florida, Republican Marco Rubio. The marches are gone. And so is the multiplicity of voices and faces.
There's something disembodied and disconnected about the discussion now. Other than the president's quick hop to Nevada to give his post-second-inaugural immigration speech some local color, the discussion has been conducted almost exclusively inside the Beltway and behind closed doors. Quick, what are the terms of the "bipartisan framework"?
If reform does come this year, it'll be absent any pretense that it was accomplished for the people or by the people, except very indirectly. That's because we all know that reform is advancing not because of human needs but because of political needs: Specifically, the Republicans' desperation to save their reputation with Latino voters.
If you're in favor of comprehensive reform — as I am — you couldn't care less how it happens, as long as it happens. But there's real danger that fixing immigration in an inside-the-Beltway manner may worsen an even bigger problem: the growing disconnect between the public and politics.
Do the people matter?
The way immigration is being debated is exactly why so many Americans are so cynical about the political process. Civic do-gooders are constantly telling us how important it is to engage in our public institutions, to make our voices heard. We Americans want to believe that, but then we see major national policy made with little public input, and we rightly suspect that the political class ultimately works for the greater glory of the political class. Does it even matter if we get involved?
It should. Yes, grass-roots public debates, let alone mass marches, are messy. The messaging isn't always clear or smooth. Real people don't have press secretaries or public relations consultants. Their arguing points arise from textured and nuanced real-life situations that don't lend themselves to the purist positions held by the ideological extremes, which drown out real discussion in our national dialogue. Finding lasting solutions to problems requires going into the weeds.
One reason our politics keep failing to produce nuanced solutions is that hot-button issues are raised to the level of abstraction. Take the specific applications to specific lives out of the conversation and polarization results, shades of gray disappear. Does it ever seem to you that the people who do engage in debates most fiercely on such issues as abortion or gay marriage are the very people who are least likely to be personally grappling with the issue?
One sure sign of the need for a reality check in the immigration debate is the number of politicians and policies claiming to serve the interests of a national "Latino community." That "community" — as a single entity — is a myth. All 50 million Latinos can't be reduced to a single-issue interest group.
Such reductionism allows Washington to hijack "Latinos" for its own purposes. It allows the media to entertain the absurd notion that throngs of mestizo Mexican Americans from California will one day help carry a white Cuban U.S. senator from Florida to the White House, because they're all Latino. It enables the Republican Party to think that supporting immigration reform is enough of a solution to having become a de facto white race party.
The best check on such nonsense is the public, and especially those members of the public who would be affected by the policies under construction. The people need to be engaged not only to counter Washington myth-making but to make sure that whatever reform is produced serves actual human constituents, distinct human dilemmas. Dehumanized debates, after all, too often produce dehumanizing policies.