In American politics, the party with a plan gets to frame the debate, no matter how good the plan actually is. The Democrats over the past several years, for example, staged a huge campaign for a massive job-killing bill to “fix” our broken healthcare system. There are many good reasons why this plan would do more harm than good, and a good fight was put up against it. But because the Republicans largely failed to offer a substantiative alternative – because the debate was framed as “Obamacare or status quo” – Democrats were able to push the bill through anyway.
The same is true of Arizona’s controversial immigration reform laws. Proponents portray it not as a sweeping reform, but as necessary legislation, taking action where the federal government won’t. And just like the healthcare bill, supporters are trying to set up a dichotomy between Arizona and Status Quo.
But there is a third way, as conservative Utah is showing in its new immigration legislation. Interestingly enough, its recent series of immigration bills have drawn comparisons both to Arizona’s law, and to Ronald Reagan’s 1986 reform, which at first glance might seem to swing in opposite directions. Utah’s bills take certain key features of both:
- They ramp up criminal enforcement. Following Arizona’s law, police are required to “check the immigration status of anyone arrested on a felony or a serious misdemeanor charge”. It deftly avoids the profiling charge against the Arizona law by not leaving the check to the discretion of the police. Both Arizona and Utah’s laws make it clear that there is no right to come to this country and commit crimes.
- They provide a legal framework for employment. Those immigrants who are employed, are living in the state, and have no criminal background, may apply for a two year work permit. Though it is not a pathway to citizenship as Reagan’s bill was, it encourages productive labor, rather than indigence, crime, and dependence on government social programs.
- They don’t flout the federal government. Where Arizona’s bill set it on a collision course with the federal government and left itself open to court challenges, Utah’s bills engage the federal government. Its lawmakers are seeking to establish a model reform program for other states, and to preempt legal challenges by “giv[ing] the governor until 2013 to negotiate with federal immigration authorities”.
A majority of North Carolina voters recognize that our current system is broken and would support the Arizona law over the status quo. Yet fully a third oppose it. Utah’s law, by taking the essentials of Arizona’s law but including some business-friendly elements and other language, will hopefully serve to broaden the debate much-needed immigration reform. As North Carolina mulls its own reform, it’s good to see a substantiative third option presented.