Opinion: Playing Politics Won't Get Us to the Finish Line on Immigration Reform

Last week, I watched with excitement as the Senate "Gang of Eight" revealed their comprehensive immigration-reform package. I know from my own experience with family members and young people in the South Asian community that the U.S. is in as dire need of immigration reform as it ever has been.

The bipartisan group of senators tried to convince the press and the American people that this time was different from the failed 2006 and 2007 attempts at reform. But I couldn't help thinking that the press conference looked like more of the same.

Here are eight men, six of them white, in charge of drafting a bill that will have a transformative impact on the country's politics, culture, and economics and particularly on the lives of many people of color. I'm not sure it was more or less troubling to hear the open acknowledgment of the impetus behind the announcement by Sen. John McCain in a surprising moment of candor during the press conference: "Elections. Elections."

On few other issues are the voices of immigrant leaders in the legislative process more important. If immigrant lawmakers had a stronger voice in the process they would be crafting the bill for other reasons: equity in education, health care, and social services; greater accessibility to the American dream; and recognition of the significant ways in which immigrants contribute to industries from farming to services to technology.

It's clear from 2012 that the immigrant vote is crucial in national elections. Political scientist David Mayhew has shown that legislators' chief concern while in office is reelection. The Republican Party and these senators know that their electoral fortunes depend on garnering larger shares of the Asian-American, Pacific Islander, and Latino votes.

All but one of the eight senators come from states in which immigrants, particularly Latinos, make up more than 15 percent of the population. From Sen. Marco Rubio's Florida (22.9 percent Latino) to McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake's Arizona (30.1 percent Latino), the Latino vote is getting Republican senators to pay attention. Among Democrats like Sens. Chuck Schumer and Richard Durbin, from traditional receiving states New York and Illinois, the Latino population is also a strong motivating factor in their support of comprehensive immigration reform.

But when you have bills that can alter the lives of nearly 70 million Americans (18 million Asian-Americans and 50 million Latinos, who include both the undocumented and their family members affected by having family members of indeterminate status), playing politics is not good enough. Congress members crafting the bill need to have their hearts and heads in the right place, with sensitivity to the line that undocumented immigrants will go to the back of and the size of the fine that they will be asked to pay. And one way to ensure that is with a more diverse group of decision makers.

Despite the gains made by women in the 2012 elections last year, why is there such little diversity on the Gang of Eight?

The two Latino members indeed bring a unique perspective. But the "gang" in charge of immigration reform in 2007 had two Latinos as well, and a woman. Today, six years later, despite the Senate having the largest number of women in history, diversity among the "gang" has dropped. And, even more revealing, there are only three other senators to draw from to make the gang more ethnically diverse — one Asian-American, Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii; one Latino, Ted Cruz, R-Texas; and one African-American, Tim Scott, R-S.C.

At least one of these three — Cruz — is a vocal opponent of a path to citizenship, so clearly ethnicity doesn't always bring empathy. But, in general, research confirms that women policymakers make a difference in the types of policies they prioritize and in the ways in which they engage their constituents.

Research on minority representation in Congress has shown that elected officials from black and Latino backgrounds are influenced by a worldview and experiences that they share with their constituents, and make legislative decisions to benefit their own communities that fall outside of a traditional conservative/liberal paradigm.

To incorporate the perspectives of more women, Asians, blacks, and Latinos, we need to increase their representation in Congress. The ideal Gang of Eight would have white senators from states with large immigrant populations, but also Asian-American and Latino male and female senators who can lend their experiences to the process and help rally support for a bill that affects their communities and our country.

It's not only about elections; it is about the lives of millions of Americans striving for the American Dream. And as President Obama said in Nevada, in his statement for immigration reform, it's not only about policy; it's about people.

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.