Renewing the Promise

Progressives must lead the way to comprehensive immigration reform

In his 1965 inaugural address, President Lyndon B. Johnson accentuated the idea of America as a spiritual quest for freedom from both tyranny and misery. In his clarion call for reform, LBJ argued that America’s soul is the promise that those who make the journey to our land can labor to share in its fruits and be liberated from poverty, discrimination, and ignorance. We are dignified by what we have accomplished and distraught by our sometimes terrible failures, but most importantly, we are proud of what we strive to achieve. Our faith in the future is the foundation of our strength.

Recently, the question of who is permitted to share in America’s journey and bounty was answered in an un-American fashion. This past Friday, the Arizona state legislature took immigration reform into its own crude hands by passing Senate Bill 1070, legislation intended to further criminalize undocumented workers in the state. Among other things, the bill requires that police officers determine the immigration status of anyone they apprehend and deem “reasonably suspicious.” It outlaws the employment of day laborers and prohibits anyone—citizen or otherwise—from wittingly transporting undocumented immigrants. Perhaps worst of all, the legislation permits Arizonans to sue police officers who they imagine to be insufficiently vigilant. SB1070 is not rooted in a desire for order so much as a sentiment of fear.  As acknowledged in a Crimson staff editorial on Monday, the bill does little to curb undocumented immigration, but almost certainly incites racial profiling, fosters the presumption that some folks are guilty until proven innocent, cripples law enforcement, and exposes government agencies to frivolous lawsuits.

The passage of SB1070 reveals an important but oft-ignored truth: If progressives don’t unite and push for comprehensive immigration reform at a national level, local reactionaries will enact policies that contradict the American Dream of a more classless and a casteless society. SB1070 is likely to be struck down by the courts, as was California’s Proposition 187 in 1998, but if progressives don’t craft new policy, there will be many more SB1070s to come.

In the last half century, immigration reform has caused schizophrenia among left-of-center Americans. One response to reform, which comes naturally to academics and wealthier liberals, tends to focus on cultural prejudice and international economic inequality. It imagines that the inequalities between nations can be mitigated through a lenient, cosmopolitan immigration policy. The second response, which comes more naturally to union members and the unsoundly employed, tends to focus on domestic economic security. It contends that the cosmopolitan approach runs counter to America’s responsibility to its own citizens suppressing wages, threatening social services, and exacerbating unemployment.

We saw evidence of the clash of these two philosophies during the debate over the 2006 reform bill, in which the Republican proposal for a guest worker program was particularly contentious. This need not be the case this time around; the two approaches can and must be reconciled. Americans deserve reform that strengthens national security, protects working families, promotes immigrant rights, and aids economic recovery.


Immigration reform, even during a recession, doesn’t have to put American’s citizen workforce and undocumented immigrants at odds. There’s more than enough room for common ground. Reform policies should be guided by the principle of offering safe employment to the undocumented  who already work here and unionizing those jobs to raise wages. When workers of any origin can’t live with their families, organize, and work for their children’s healthcare and education, everyone in this country suffers. A more controlled and humane immigration system can help undocumented immigrants integrate into the rest of the American workforce. As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich argued earlier this month, a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants can help shore up our social safety net. It can also fill our coffers for further reform: the Congressional Budget Office estimates that had the Senate reform bill passed in 2006, it would have generated $66 billion in federal revenues from 2007-2016, and only cost $54 billion in direct spending over the same period.

For LBJ, the highest symbols of our faith were the obstacles that lie before us: “the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge” to be overcome by the strength of our spirit and the sweat of our hands. In the past, left-of-center Americans weren’t averse to compromising with each other in order to cross the political wastelands and meet towering challenges. Those who would merely criticize the status quo must realize that the moment demands agency. We have new badlands to traverse. America was begun by strangers who found common purpose in a voyage. Many folks have joined the journey, discovering a pride more powerful than chauvinism, a faith stronger than fear. For Americans, and especially for progressives, it is time to re-earn our heritage and renew this country’s promise. It’s time to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Raúl A. Carrillo ’10 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. He is an active member of the Harvard Latino community and a native of the U.S.-Mexico border. His column appears on alternate Fridays.