Opinion: Glimmers of Progress but Little Hope on Immigration

We had hoped to see immigration emerge among the topics at the vice presidential and first presidential debate, but it took an audience member at the town-hall-style debate on Tuesday to raise it.

The question came from Lorraine Osario: "What do you plan on doing with immigrants without their green cards that are currently living here as productive members of society?" Although both candidates did a fine job laying out their individual visions on immigration reform (although they neglected to answer the question), President Obama and Mitt Romney failed to explain how they might use their powers as president to push a comprehensive reform package through the biggest obstacle of all: Congress.

The two candidates agree, and so do many of us--the system is broken and needs to be fixed. Romney, infamous for arguing for self-deportation, began his answer with his own immigration story as he did at the Republican National Convention: his father's birth in Mexico to American parents and his wife's father's birth in Wales.

"I want our legal system to work better. I want it to be streamlined," Romney said, citing the challenges of navigating the federal government's confusing immigration bureaucracy.

Obama, who enjoys a 44-point advantage over Romney with Latino voters, began his answer in much the same way as the former Massachusetts governor with his support for a streamlined immigration system that reduces the backlog and makes it "easier, simpler, and cheaper for people who are waiting in line, obeying the law," to come to the United States.

As he continued his answer, Romney took a predictably hard position on immigrants who entered the country without proper authorization or currently reside here without documentation, notably using "legal," "legally," and "illegally" 20 times throughout the entire exchange (at one point he caught himself saying "undocumented," and quickly followed it with "illegal").

Obama, on the other hand, used "illegally" once referring to "those who are here illegally," and otherwise used "undocumented" when referring to individuals.

Addressing the record number of deportations carried out by his administration, a major weakness with Latino voters, Obama reiterated his support for the selective deportations of "criminals, gang bangers who are hurting the community," and not for honest individuals "trying to feed their families," and undocumented students (Dream Act-ers), a group he was able to appeal to with the deferred action plan he announced this summer to block deportation and issues work authorization for qualified individuals. Obama didn't hesitate to hit back at Romney on his vow to veto the Dream Act and his support for making life "so miserable on folks that they'll leave."

Romney would discourage illegal immigration, he said, by refusing to grant amnesty, a dirty word in Republican circles, putting in place an e-verify system to confirm the immigration statuses of employees, and by removing magnets like driver's licenses for those without documentation.

The president accused Romney of saying that Arizona's SB-1070 should be a "model" for the nation, though Romney and fact-checkers swiftly pointed out that he was referring to a different law when making that remark.

Expanding legal immigration was not off bounds for the governor. He suggested, as he has before on the stump and on his website, that immigrants who graduate from top universities with degrees in science and math should get a green card stapled to their diploma, a plan championed by congressional Republicans but that failed in the House earlier this fall. He also supports a Dream Act-lite, one that would offer "those that came here illegally "¦ a pathway to become a permanent resident" through military service, although he was sparse on other details.

Surprisingly, Romney didn't address the border fence with Mexico, an issue that dominated immigration debates throughout most of the 2000s and one on which the Republicans were always seen as strong.

In one last rebuttal, the ex-governor again addressed Obama's failed promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the first year of his tenure and clarified his remarks on self-deportation, stressing that he was "not in favor of rounding up people "¦ and taking them out of our country."  The president responded by simply pointing out that Romney's top adviser on immigration, Kris Kobach, is the "guy who designed the Arizona law, the entirety of it--not e-verify, the whole thing."

So, where does this banter and posturing leave us? Obama was more forceful than he has been on immigration reform, a promising sign, though it is unclear whether he will use his political capital in a second term to move this agenda.

Romney promises to push for immigration reform in his first year as president, as Obama did, though it is unclear how the former governor plans to address the elephant in the room--the 11 million to 13 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

The missing link in this conversation, of course, is Congress. Even with a pro-immigration reform president in the White House (George W. Bush), the late Sen. Edward Kennedy still failed to usher a comprehensive immigration bill through Congress in 2006 and 2007.

If Kennedy's experience is any guide, immigration reform can be a political minefield that necessitates uncomfortable bedfellows. With polarization at record levels and a congressional delegation full of tea party conservatives, it is unlikely that either candidate could enact a bill without a bruising fight. Nothing on Tuesday indicated that either candidate is ready to step into the ring.

Sayu Bhojwani is the founding director of The New American Leaders Project. She has worked on immigrant integration in various capacities for more than 15 years.