On Tuesday, Barack Obama flew to Nevada, where one in five residents is foreign-born, to once again call for comprehensive immigration reform – a centrist approach to a nagging problem that's been demagogued by the conservative media as “amnesty” and blocked by nativists in Congress for almost a decade.
Obama's speech offered some sharp elbows for Congress's nativist wing, and some hope for those in his very supportive audience. But Obama's optimism belied two potentially serious problems for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in this country: one political and one inherent in the nuts and bolts of policy.
In Washington, there's renewed hope that in the wake of Republicans' second electoral drubbing among Latinos and Asian-Americans, there will finally be an opportunity to get a set of real reforms through Congress. Senator Marco Rubio, R-Florida, has been imploring conservatives to rethink their embrace of “self-deportation” and back a measure that would provide some kind of mechanism for undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows.
And last week, a bipartisan group of eight Senators – including Rubio and fellow Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain and Jeff Flake from Arizona – laid out a set of broad principles that might inform the legislative process.
Obama largely endorsed the still-undefined senate deal even as he revealed his own, more detailed proposals. But the larger purpose of the speech was to isolate and sideline anti-immigration hard-liners on Capitol Hill. “I’m here today because the time has come for common sense, comprehensive immigration reform,” he said. “The time is now.”
He talked about the public's support for a comprehensive fix, and warned of America losing her competitive edge as highly-skilled migrants take their education and return home to put it to use. “Intel was started with the help of an immigrant who studied here and then stayed here,” he said. “Instagram was started with the help of an immigrant who studied here and then stayed here. Right now in one of those classrooms, there’s a student wrestling with how to turn their big idea, their Intel or Instagram, into a big business.”
Obama noted that there appears to be a rare bit of consensus emerging on the issue. “At this moment, it looks like there’s a genuine desire to get this done soon, and that’s very encouraging,” he said. “But this time, action must follow. We can’t allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate.”
“The ideas I’m proposing have traditionally been supported by both Democrats, like Ted Kennedy, and Republicans, like President George W. Bush,” said Obama, before adding a laugh-line: “You don’t get that match-up very often.”
He then promised: “If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away.”
He reminded his audience that we are indeed a nation of immigrants, a fact that seems to drive hard-liners nuts. “It’s really important for us to remember history,” he said. “Unless you’re one of the first Americans, a Native American, you came from some place else, somebody brought you.”
The substance of the president's proposals aren't revolutionary. They track with previous comprehensive fixes dating back to the McCain-Kennedy bill back in 2007. For liberal immigration advocates, there is a path to “earned” citizenship, and an expedited process for “Dreamers” – children brought here illegally by their parents – if they go to college or serve two years in the military.
For conservatives, the package offers yet more militarization of the border – a process long underway – a phase-in of mandatory citizenship checks using the controversial E-Verify system and a lot of hoops to jump through before a migrant worker can become legal – he or she would have to pay a fine and any back taxes owed, take civics classes and prove his or her proficiency in English before going to “the back of the line.”
Whether such a policy can be passed will be the key question in the coming months. The political and media elites in the Beltway are confident that Republicans are sufficiently chastened by the GOP's declining share of the Latino and Asian-American votes — and those of other immigrant groups – that they will be willing to buck their base to get something done.
But this conventional wisdom may be underestimating the degree of fractiousness that defines the conservative movement today. Sean Hannity may see the partisan benefit in getting onboard, but Michelle Malkin is a better harbinger of the passions of the base – “Suicidal GOP senators join open-borders Dems for Shamnesty Redux,” screamed her headline.
Meanwhile, many members of the House GOP caucus are insulated from both popular and elite opinion. An analysis by the National Journal highlights the problem for a party struggling to connect with non-white voters:
Fully 131 of the 233 House Republicans represent districts that are more than 80 percent white. Not only have many of those members opposed measures beyond improving border security in the past, but there are also no natural pressure groups for immigration reform in their districts. The Democratic Caucus, which is largely unified in support of some sort of immigration-reform proposal, has just 31 members from such very white districts.
And while the national party has embarked on a period of introspection forced by a crushing national loss, many House Republicans saw their individual victories as mandates to carry on. A number of members represent districts so safe — both politically and demographically — that they don’t need to step out on immigration reform. Some surely fear potential primaries more than standing in the way of a deal: State legislatures across the country are dotted with ambitious Republicans who voted for Arizona-style immigration-enforcement laws over the past few years.
If House Republicans demand that the so-called Hastert Rule prevail – meaning that Speaker John Boehner can't bring a bill to the floor without the support of a majority of Republicans – they could successfully block the effort, regardless of any heat they might take from leadership or the Washington Post's editorial page.
Meanwhile, the knives are already coming out for Marco Rubio, who may well be risking his shot at the GOP presidential nomination with this effort (John McCain was forced to abandon his own reform proposals during the 2008 primaries). On Tuesday, Rush Limbaugh, who said a day earlier that it would be “up to me and Fox News” to kill the latest reform effort, basically accused Rubio of shilling for Democrats. In response, Rubio “made clear his willingness to blow up talks if he thinks a bill is moving too far to the left,” according to Talking-Points Memo.
Which brings us to the policy issues. The problem may well be that the bill starts out too far to the right to achieve its stated goals. Obama's proposals appear to concede with a number of conservative talking-points about immigration. It focuses on “enforcement first,” and promises to beef up border security before allowing migrants to begin the process at “the back of the line.”
The devil will be in the details, and depending on what comes out of the sausage-making process, those details may ultimately prove to be a barrier in undocumented residents' “path to citizenship.”
As the Washington Post noted last week, “Rubio has said he thinks immigrants who came to the country illegally should be able to earn a work permit but should be required to seek citizenship through existing avenues after those who have come here legally.”
Many Democrats and immigration advocates fear Rubio’s approach would result in wait-times stretching for decades, creating a class of permanent legal residents for whom the benefits of citizenship appear unattainable. They have pushed to create new pathways to citizenship specifically available to those who achieve legal residency as part of a reform effort.
Another potential roadblock is that the first of Obama's proposals is to “strengthen our border security.” The Senate framework calls for a sequential process in which the border is first “secured” and only then can a “path to citizenship” (or at least permanent residency) be established.
The question, after a decade of militarization of our Southern border, is whether it can ever be secure enough to satisfy them. As Washington Post's Suzy Khimm notes, “The Senate’s language suggests that the government has held back from devoting money, equipment and personnel to border security. In fact, even though the 2007 immigration bill ultimately failed, we’ve nevertheless hit nearly all of the targets that it established for increased border security—except for achieving absolute 'operational control' of the border and mandatory detention of all border-crossers who’ve been apprehended.”
The Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Border Patrol aren’t much help in defining or assessing border security. About the closest DHS comes to defining border security is declaring its commitment to “secure the border” against the entry of “dangerous people and goods.”
The ambiguity and expansiveness of the new border security mission is paralleled by the Border Patrol’s apparent inability to evaluate the threats and risks to border security and to assess the degree to which the border is secure. The Border Patrol has squandered much of the goodwill, trust and credibility that resounded to its border control mission after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The billions of dollars wasted in flawed high-tech projects, and the agency’s unwillingness to subject its many new border-security initiatives to cost-benefit evaluations and risk-based assessments, have given rise to new skepticism about border policy.
Meanwhile, net migration from Mexico has fallen to zero, and may have even reversed direction entirely. At this point, “securing our borders” may be a sop to homeland security contractors and Fox News' viewers, but it isn't grounded in sound policy.
Obama also calls for phasing in the mandatory use of E-Verify, an electronic system that lets companies check a potential employee's immigration status. But civil libertarians say that it's a back-door to imposing national ID cards. Immigrants rights' advocates point to the system's high error rate, and say that it could ultimately cause employers to shy away from hiring people with foreign-sounding names.
Another potential hurdle will rest on how steep the fines undocumented workers will have to pay will be – charging a fine for violating the law may be politically popular, but if it prices poorer migrants out of the process it will ultimately defeat the purpose.
Finally, advocates have reason to be wary of the administration's commitment to continuing its “criminal deportation” program. In theory, this means prioritizing the removal of convicted felons over working people who only committed a minor immigration infraction. Sounds good, but as Stephanie Mencimer pointed out in Mother Jones last year, “not only has ICE failed in its goal of deporting more criminals and fewer noncriminals, but the percentage of deportations related to criminal activity has actually fallen, from 17 percent of the caseload in 2010 to 14 percent in the first three months of 2012.”
Many of these concessions may prove to be smart moves if they ultimately result in enough Republicans voting for a plan that brings the undocumented into the mainstream of American society in a reasonable period of time. But recent history suggests that may be an exceedingly tough lift.
In any event, while we can't know what the near-future holds for immigration reform, we can be sure that if the issue pertains to undocumented immigrants, the fight ahead will be nasty.
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