Now that Republicans are softening their position on immigration,
President Obama and Congress need to act.
Funny how quickly some principles collapse when given the right kind of shove. One day, the Republican Party is rock-ribbed restrictionist, dedicated to the proposition that unauthorized immigrants are an invading army of job stealers, welfare moochers and criminals whose only acceptable destiny is to be caught and deported -- the border fence forever, "amnesty" never. The next day: Never mind. The party suddenly discovers the merits of a working immigration system. Senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who once bravely supported bipartisan reform but slunk away late in the last Bush administration, are scratching at the door again, as if the last five years never happened.
All it took was an election in which millions of Latino voters -- many of them the wives and husbands, sons, daughters, grandchildren, cousins, co-workers and friends of those despised "illegals" -- overwhelmingly chose President Obama over the man who promised to be deporter in chief. They rejected Mitt Romney by 3 to 1, according to exit polls. Asian-Americans did, too. Republicans looked at a changing America, saw a future of decline and irrelevance for the party, and concluded that immigrants weren't so bad after all.
This poses an opportunity and a challenge for Mr. Obama, who promised to tackle immigration reform in his first term and did not. He says he will push reform early, and he looks well positioned to get something done. His allies in Congress need to step up and help.
Any worthwhile reform must give 11 million undocumented immigrants a way to live within the law as American citizens. Mr. Obama's stopgap move to protect young immigrants and students from deportation was sensible and necessary. But these Americans-in-fact deserve the chance to be Americans on paper, too. So do their parents, and whoever else in the 11 million wishes to journey from "them" to "us." Republicans are floating schemes for temporary legal status for workers without a clear path to citizenship. Mr. Obama should make clear that basic equality demands more than that.
Meanwhile, he should be reforming the way his administration is carrying out current law -- starting with scaling back its arbitrary, self-imposed quota of 400,000 deportations a year. There is enforcement work to be done, like finding more effective ways to stifle illegal employment, but any strategy that fixates on deportations and the border is ineffective. Illegal border crossings and arrests at the border have fallen to the lowest levels in decades. The unauthorized immigrants whom hard-liners want to keep out are already in the country. They are the workers and families Mr. Obama says he wants to integrate and assimilate, even as his policies break those families apart. Mr. Obama's own Department of Homeland Security is a huge part of the problem, with its dangerous and widening use of state and local police officers as surrogate immigration enforcement agents. Its Secure Communities program has led to mass deportations of minor offenders and even people with no criminal records.
The country needs a new approach to immigration enforcement. The Obama administration should keep fighting efforts by states like Arizona and Alabama to set up their own immigration laws to abuse and deport the undocumented. And it should support states like Illinois and New York, which have been trying to reassert the proper separation between local police officers and federal immigration agents.
There will be challenges, of course. The hard-liners against reform have not gone away. But the election did scare some of the immigration opportunists back onto the bipartisan bus.
Mr. Obama needs to think bigger and better, and look to the large constituency behind reform -- student activists, business groups, farmers, labor unions, Catholic bishops, evangelical churches, African-Americans, civil-liberties organizations and regular citizens who support legalization -- to press the case. The arguments for reform over expulsion have always been better for the rule of law, the preservation of families and the economy. Now that some of their opponents are softening their positions, Mr. Obama and Congress need to act.
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