In the ongoing legislative debate over immigration, Frank Sharry ’78 has been pushing for comprehensive reform. The founder and executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration-reform advocacy group, Sharry has been in Washington working on immigration issues for more than two decades. He believes that reform would strengthen the economy and be a “civil-rights breakthrough for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who currently live in America.” PAW spoke with Sharry before the government shutdown in October.
Why is now the right time for reform?
We’ve been trying to get it done for years. The last major immigration reform we have had, in truly changing the architecture of immigration, was in 1965. We have a dysfunctional system that hasn’t kept up with the times. So the idea is to modernize our immigration system so that we can accomplish objectives that are in our national interest. We want a legal system that helps grow the economy. We want controlled enforcement mechanisms that work at the border, at the point of hire, and in the entry-and-exit system, and legal channels that combine to significantly reduce illegal immigration. You can’t do that without having a clean slate by giving the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country a chance.
What needs to happen for a law to pass?
What we hope is that sometime this fall the House of Representatives will take up a series of individual bills that will be strung together in a comprehensive bill. I’m optimistic. I think there’s a strong public desire to fix a broken system. I think there’s strong public support for a reform that combines a path to citizenship with strong enforcement. There is a broad coalition that supports reform, from evangelical conservatives to tech executives. Even though there are plenty of doubts about Congress’ ability to do anything significant, our odds are still better than 50/50.
This effort has failed before. What makes this time different?
When we’ve tackled reform in the past — specifically working with Sen. Ted Kennedy and Sen. John McCain — we’ve relied too much on a top-down, inside-out strategy. The power of the senators, combined with President [George W.] Bush, was counted on to get us across the finish line. But that was at a time, 2006 and 2007, of deepening polarization, which led to paralysis. This time, we have more of an outside-in, bottom-up strategy, where we have tremendous strength in our grass roots. I also think that there is a greater appreciation for the policies of what we call comprehensive immigration reform. In the past it was caricatured [by opponents] as “amnesty.”
What are the biggest obstacles?
The conflict is overcoming the House Republican dysfunction. I think the leading Republicans in the House understand that if the GOP cannot rehabilitate its reputation with Hispanic, Asian, and immigrant voters, they’re most likely going to lay off voting Republican for generations. They’re going to have a very hard time remaining a major national party if they can’t be more appealing. Any moderate voter doesn’t want to support a party that’s known as a whites-only party.
Interview conducted and condensed by Gabriel Debenedetti ’12