You just don’t hear the hue and cry anymore when immigration reform comes up. Funny the immediate effect an election can have on attitudes.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Republicans John McCain of Arizona and tea party favorite Marco Rubio of Florida, beat President Obama to the punch last week in introducing a legislative package that would grant effective amnesty to the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in this country, so long as they register with Uncle Sam, clear a background check and pony up a fine and any back taxes. Beyond that the federal government would go after employers who knowingly hire illegals, further tighten border security and issue more temporary visas, particularly to the highly skilled - such as engineers - and agricultural workers.
Obama, who benefited mightily from the votes of Hispanics who viewed Republicans as hostile to their interests - winning them by almost a three-to-one margin - has pretty much endorsed the plan, with one difference. He wants a path to citizenship that is not conditional on the establishment of a break-proof border.
On the one hand, the U.S. arguably has made strides in that area - though some would beg to differ - doubling the number of Border Patrol agents over the last decade, constructing hundreds of miles of fence, patrolling our southern boundary with unmanned drones and other aircraft. In fact Obama has deported illegals at a faster rate than any American president, so conservatives who view this issue through a rule of law lens can’t exactly say he’s been soft on this issue.
On the other hand, Obama also implemented, by executive order, the DREAM Act, which pretty much pardons the children of illegal immigrants who are here through no fault of their own and are making a meaningful contribution - getting their education, serving in the military. As always, you don’t want to tempt the Law of Unintended Consequences, either. To the degree any new law would be perceived as a green light, we don’t want that 11 million swelling to an unmanageable number because of a border that, despite the tightening, remains all too porous. Rubio and others are right to caution about that. It’s what happened after the last serious, otherwise well-intentioned immigration reform, under Ronald Reagan in 1986.
From this vantage Uncle Sam should do both, working toward a less penetrable border and providing a more accessible path to citizenship.
Election results or no, quick passage here is by no means a sure thing. There remain some irrational voices on Capitol Hill on this subject. The insistence by some on border enforcement before legalization could be a hill too high to climb for enough legislators to matter. Further complicating things are the deficit hawks. An airtight border, for those - mostly Republicans - set on pursuing one, comes at a cost. Sometimes you can’t have it both ways.
Page 2 of 2 - In any case, it would seem clear that gun control and immigration reform are the two major priorities of the Obama administration in this second term. That’s a risk, because meanwhile the economy continues to sputter, as evidenced by this week’s disappointing jobs report. It also provides ammunition to those who criticized the president’s concentration on health care reform rather than the state of the economy in his first term.
Indeed, this has been termed “the most anemic recovery in modern history” by no less a Democrat than former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich. Only 157,000 jobs were added by U.S. employers in January, significantly fewer than the month before, with the unemployment rate at a stubborn 7.9 percent. Some 20 million Americans remain unemployed or underemployed, reports Reich for the Huffington Post, and 40 percent of those are now considered chronically jobless, with few reasons to hope.
The economy is in a vicious cycle. Employers say they want greater certainty, with Washington and its budget battles - with more to come in March - providing precious little of it. But more than that they need customers for their products. They’re not going to find them among those not working, or employed but earning less.
From the perspective of timing, launching immigration reform to the top of the list and producing even more competitors for those few jobs could prove a no-winner. At some point, sooner rather than later, the warring parties need to pow-wow on the economy, or be accused of fiddling while America burns.
Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.