At every point on the political compass Americans agree something needs to be done about the nation's policy on undocumented immigration. The problem is what to do with the immigrants themselves—an issue people from left to right consider urgent. The longer the Congress fiddles, meanwhile, the more the state legislatures burn.
If the assumption used to be that immigration was strictly a federal concern, that idea needs to go out with the trash: In the first half of 2010 alone, legislators in 44 states introduced 319 bills addressing immigration issues, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the second half of the year, as many as a dozen states took up bills directly fashioned on Arizona's tough SB 1070, using local police powers to push out undocumented immigrants in a process sometimes called "self-deportation."
The discourse at the state level can be wild and woolly. Debbie Riddle, for example, is the Texas legislator who went on Anderson Cooper 360 last August warning of a plot by immigrant mothers to give birth to "terror babies"— children born here with the specific aim of training them to be secret agents.
Riddle told Cooper that "former FBI folks" whom she declined to name had warned her of a terrorist conspiracy involving foreign babies. She said the plot involves "folks coming over here having their babies when they are not here legally, or they might have overstayed their visa, whether they are coming from south of the border or whether they are coming from Middle-Eastern countries."
Pressed by Cooper, Riddle seemed to conflate the baby threat with dirty bombs: "It is altogether possible to make a dirty bomb," she said, "stick it in a suitcase, walk it across our southern border and take it to downtown Houston or any other city and blow it up and kill a million or more folks."
At that point even the normally aggressive Cooper seemed to lose his appetite for further detail.
But Riddle was only hitting her stride on the Anderson Cooper show. After the November 2 election, she camped out on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives in Austin for an entire weekend so that she would be first in line when the House opened for business Monday morning. The minute the chief clerk opened his door, Riddle handed him a bill that was a direct copycat of Arizona's SB 1070, based on "enforcement first," with no eye toward integration or a path to citizenship.
She also beat other anti-immigrant rights lawmakers to the punch by being first this upcoming session to introduce a bill denying the right to vote to American citizens who fail to produce required photo identification cards.
Later Riddle bragged on her website she had "created a media frenzy." Describing her weekend outing, she said, "A visitor that walked by told me that I reminded them of the kids that camp out for Duke basketball tickets in Durham, North Carolina."
Compared to Riddle's exuberant flair, the case for comprehensive reform is numbingly complex and frustratingly diffuse. But that has a lot to do with the incredible diversity of the coalition behind an integrative approach as opposed to those who propose massive deportation.
Anderson Cooper can do all the deadpan he wants. And yet it's the Debbie Riddles who are in the driver's seat on immigration, a stunning reality given the breadth and depth of the forces arrayed against them in favor of comprehensive reform and full legal status for the undocumented millions among us.
Consider the National Immigration Forum, whose mission is to "embrace and uphold America's tradition as a nation of immigrants." Its board members represent the Catholic Church, the Baptist Church, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, major employers and big labor, along with policy groups of both liberal and conservative stripe.
The urgent need for national immigration reform is uniting what otherwise might be strange bedfellows. Last April when Arizona passed SB 1070, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce went to court against it arm-in-arm with one of the country's most powerful unions, Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
And it's not just interest groups and factions who favor a resolution that does not involve mass deportation. Opinion polls have found strong support—in the 80 percent range—for controlling the borders and integrating the immigrants already here into lawful society. Mass expulsion, whether by deportation or harassment, is in the approval ratings basement, at more like 25 percent.
In spite of all that, the advocates of integration are fox-holing for a bitter fight in which they admit their best hope is to stave off a surge for mass expulsion when the new Congress sits next year, given its anticipated tenor after the full effect of the mid-term elections takes hold in January.
Before the mid-terms changed everything, the aims of the moderates came down to four things, all expressed in bills introduced but not passed in the last session of Congress by senators Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina; Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey; and Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York.