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Children in Los Angeles take the U.S. oath of citizenship on September 19 with their parents standing by. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Beyond the DREAM Act

How immigration reformers can get the GOP on board.

BY Nyki Salinas-Duda

To sell fair immigration reform to Middle America, proposals must be couched in terms of the economy. It’s basic pump-priming: if immigrants are working legally, they will be paying into the country’s collective piggy bank.

After November 6, Obama is beholden to the voters who kept him in the Oval Office, and to one group especially: Latinos.

Latinos make up 10 percent of the electorate, and a whopping 71 percent voted for Obama. Voters of color—and Latinos especially—were the wind beneath Obama’s wings.

It’s essentialist to call immigration the Latino issue—healthcare and education were hot election topics for them, too, and plenty of immigrants are of other ethnicities. But in a community of more than 50 million with a strong sense of history and real or imagined ties to Latin America, anti-immigrant sentiment is seen as an affront.

In the near future, more than 7.5 million permanent residents, mostly Latinos, are primed to become naturalized citizens and eligible voters. Politicians will have no choice but to heed an increasingly progressive Latino vote. Activists would do well to use their newfound clout to demand reforms that go beyond deferred action or a revived DREAM Act.

These two plans offer a path to legal status for young, educated people, but not for their parents, and not for other Latino youth who came to the United States to support their families abroad. Many of these young people are semiliterate in both Spanish and English, and therefore unable to meet education requirements.

To settle for reform that affects only the most fortunate of the have-nots would be a mistake.

Courageous direct actions from DREAM youth and Undocubus riders have propelled the immigration-rights dialogue into the mainstream. Their direct actions do make headlines. And radical, bottom-up, community-based organizing does alleviate some burdens of being undocumented. But neither changes a person’s legal status or assuages her daily fear of deportation. You either have papers or you don’t.

At this stage, activists on the streets need to be backed up by a legislative agenda. And to sell such an agenda to Middle America, proposals for real reform must be couched in terms of the economy.

While some undocumented workers pay income taxes—the IRS allows them to obtain the tax ID numbers to do so—others do not. If immigrants were granted citizenship they would have no choice but to pay up. And that would mean millions in additional tax revenues. Lawmakers made just that argument to obtain driver’s licenses for undocumented people in New Mexico

And it is the rhetoric the Latino Congressional Caucus in Illinois is going to use to push for a similar reform during the fall veto session.

It’s basic pump-priming: if immigrants are working legally, they will be paying into the country’s collective piggy bank (if they don’t already).

To succeed, we in the immigration rights movement should shift our focus to an economic argument and stop framing the plight of the undocumented as a human rights issue (although it is). Were that to happen, even Republicans might be obliged to support far-reaching immigration and border control reform. Immigration and a legal path to citizenship should be packaged as a partial solution to the recession.

To get to this point, the 71 percent who voted for Obama must demand amnesty.

Yes, the U.S. needs a sustainable solution to immigration—a friendlier, less bureaucratic path to citizenship and a demilitarized border—and amnesty may not fit the bill as it does not address the underlying causes of undocumented immigration, namely the lack of a legal route to citizenship and misguided U.S. economic policies in Latin America.

But as the struggle continues, millions of immigrants are demanding relief—and they don’t care how they get it.

Nyki Salinas-Duda is an Assistant Editor at In These Times and a freelance writer. She holds a BA in Latin American history from the University of San Francisco.

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