June 29, 2012
By Timothy Sherratt
Now that the number of people crossing the southern border of the United States has declined sharply, the opportunity to pass comprehensive immigration reform has never been better. Much as President Bill Clinton steered welfare reform through a divided Congress in the booming economy of the mid-1990s, so could President Barack Obama or Governor Mitt Romney take advantage of similarly favorable conditions after the November election. Getting from opportunity to policy involves marrying the seemingly irreconcilable—thicker walls and wider doorways. Let me explain.
Like health care, immigration has become a pawn in the ideological game. To date, comprehensive policy has proven elusive. Conservatives have made hostility to paths to legal residency for the undocumented an article of faith; similarly, progressives have seemed unable to reconcile themselves to a robust legal regimen for discouraging illegal immigration. However, on the strength of President Obama’s recent decision to halt deportations of the children of the undocumented, immigration has moved front and center in the presidential race.
And this week the Supreme Court has preserved the centerpiece of Arizona’s immigration law, a provision requiring police to investigate the immigration status of anyone stopped on suspicion of having committed a crime. The Court isolated that provision by striking down most of the rest of the law, finding that federal immigration law pre-empted—essentially “trumped”—state law. The justices went further, noting that even the preserved provision may be subject to legal challenges to ensure that it is implemented in an equitable fashion.
By their actions, President Obama and the Court have taken modest steps to widen doorways and thicken walls, actions which provide markers for assembling the immigration policy jigsaw puzzle. Bringing them into harmony in a divided Congress in which each party makes either wider doorways or thicker walls a non-negotiable article of faith will be very difficult, of course. However, properly understood, each reinforces, rather than undermines, the other.
By opening up wider channels of legal immigration and by ensuring that these channels are not stagnant moats but swiftly running streams, the government would create major disincentives to illegal entry for those pursuing a better life in the United States. Legal immigration makes fully fledged residents (or citizens) of would-be immigrants. Legal residents pay taxes. Legal residents can work, worship, educate their children and contribute to the life of their communities without having to shield themselves from civic authorities.
Wider channels of legal immigration would also bring Arizona’s and other states’ recent efforts to discourage illegal immigration into proper focus. Just as important as the economic, social and public justice benefits that accrue, wider doorways of legal immigration will increase the percentage, among those pursuing illegal entry, of those with criminal intent. The point of building thicker walls against illegal entry is to target those whose goal is not a better life, but terrorism, human trafficking or the drug trade. In that context, the aims and methodologies of both state and the federal governments would converge.
The familiar phrase “stemming the tide” of illegal immigration is rife with xenophobia; it fails to differentiate among immigrants’ reasons for pursuing entry. In contrast, a just public policy draws appropriate distinctions.
Helpfully, the pressure to frame the issue in undifferentiated terms is weaker now than it has been in several decades. The heart of the policy opportunity cited in my introduction is the opportunity to distinguish the purposes of the wider doorways and thicker walls. With appropriate distinctions drawn, each element becomes part of a coherent, integrated strategy.
Politically, the two presidential candidates appear closer to each other on immigration than are their respective parties, although Governor Romney took rigid positions to mollify the conservative base during the primaries. If Congressional Democrats and Republicans are prepared to distinguish the respective purposes of wider doorways and thicker walls, they could make that integrated strategy a political reality.
—Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.