Election Guide 2012: Immigration Reform

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By Ruth Melkonian-Hoover and Jessica Allen

Over the next few weeks, Capital Commentary will publish a series of articles that evaluate the 2012 presidential candidates against the principles of the Center.  

In order to compare the presidential candidates’ positions on immigration reform, we will utilize the evangelical immigration table principles, as they represent a consensus view among diverse political and theological perspectives. 

The first principle is that of “respect for the God-given dignity of every person.” Neither candidate explicitly addresses this issue. Both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney emphasize the respect to be afforded some immigrants and the prioritization of legal status for some types of immigrants; neither emphasizes the respect to be afforded all unauthorized individuals “living in the shadows” who are susceptible to a wide range of abuses.

The second principle is “protection for the unity of the family.” Romney argues that lawful permanent residents (LPRs) should be given the same priority as citizens in applying for immediate relatives to come to the U.S. He also contends that family members of citizens and LPRs should be given priority over others in the administration of green cards. While Romney claims to be “pro-immigrant,” he also argues that with only a few exceptions those who’ve come to the United States illegally need to return to their homelands (self-deport) and return to the U.S. legally. Yet many here illegally are ineligible to come back to the U.S. legally under current law. 

Obama highlights the need for speeding the process for reunification of families for citizens and LPRs and argues for the exemption of caps for legal immigration for immediate relatives of citizens. However, under Obama’s administration, thousands of unauthorized immigrants whose minor children are U.S. citizens have been deported; Romney would presumably continue such deportations.

The third principle addresses “respect for the rule of law.” Romney wants to raise the caps on visas for highly skilled workers, while Obama proposes reforming the process of granting visas. Both want to grant permanent residency to foreign students studying science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) at U.S. universities. Obama also wants to create a “start-up visa” to support the entrance of foreign entrepreneurs who could stay in the U.S. permanently if they have a proven track record of creating U.S. jobs and generating revenue.

For agricultural workers, Obama supports legislation that would offer opportunities for legal status, and he endorses the establishment of a limited guest worker program for other types of employees. Romney wants to speed the process of granting visas for agricultural workers and raise the number of visas for workers in tourist businesses.

The fourth principle involves the issue of the “guarantee of secure national borders.” Obama often highlights that the number of border agents has doubled between 2004 and 2010, and that as of 2009, an average of 400,000 unauthorized immigrants have been deported each year. In addition to increasing the number of border control personnel, Romney would like to see completion of the virtual fence at the border as well as a more vigorous pursuit of those who’ve overstayed their visas. As Christians, it’s important to consider the costs of the tough-security approach. For instance, using local law enforcement as federal immigration surrogates contributes to decreased trust between police and immigrant communities. Also, the border fence is an expensive tool that appears to have little deterrent effect and has adverse consequences for those living near the border.

The fifth principle is “ensuring fairness to taxpayers.” Both candidates emphasize the need for a robust version of the E-verify program (an internet based system that allows employers to verify the legal status of potential employees), putting some responsibility for the hiring of those without proper documentation on the employers themselves. However, as highlighted by Stronks and Korthuis, much reform has yet to be done to make such programs reliable and just.

Neither candidate emphasizes remedying the financial burdens unauthorized immigrants place on state and local governments due to significant education and healthcare costs. Romney has called for support of state-led initiatives to address immigration problems, while under Obama, the Justice Department has challenged state-led initiatives that restrict immigration through a range of mechanisms.

The last principle is “establishing a path toward legal status.” Both candidates favor immigrants who are STEM students and members of the military. Although he has yet to propose a bill to Congress, Obama supports comprehensive reform that would include a potential pathway to legal status for a broader category of unauthorized immigrants, provided that they meet certain criteria. Late in the campaign, Romney has begun to speak of “a permanent fix” for our nation’s immigration system but has been rather vague on details.

Overall, neither candidate has made comprehensive immigration reform a prominent issue in his campaign. After the DREAM Act failed to pass Congress, Obama put forward an executive mandate—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—which expanded prosecutorial discretion to focus on the deportation of criminals over the young. This is only a temporary solution.

Romney has used recent efforts amongst Latino voters to highlight his support for “100 percent of America” and his respect for immigrants; this week he stated he would not rescind Obama’s DACA efforts for those already in line, but remains unclear about what he’d do in the future.

In a time of economic insecurity, both candidates have drawn attention to their efforts to promote security measures, respect the rule of law and, in the case of Obama, promote greater flexibility for a younger generation of immigrants. Both candidates’ piecemeal efforts on immigration reform reveal the ongoing need for comprehensive immigration reform spearheaded by the executive and carried through the legislative process by bipartisan leadership.

—Ruth Melkonian-Hoover is Chair and Associate Professor of the Department of Political Science, and Jessica Allen is a senior studying International Affairs at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. 

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.