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Obama and Immigration

On the eve of Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s visit to the United States, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times described comprehensive immigration reform as a “far off dream.”  You can say that again. Despite the fact that House and Senate Democrats have fashioned two broad legislative packages that combine a sweeping legalization program with visa reform, and in the case of the Senate bill, stepped up border and workplace enforcement, it’s the Republicans, thanks to their sweeping victory last November, who are setting the nation’s agenda on immigration.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-KY), and his loyal deputy, Rep. Elton Gallegly R-CA), who chairs the immigration subcommittee, just held their third hearing in six weeks on strategies for clamping down on illegal hiring at the workplace. And it was easily the worst of the three.   The testimony featured charges that illegal immigrants are displacing poor African-Americans from the workforce at a time of massive Black unemployment, the implication being that immigration advocates, and the Obama administration, were “anti-Black,” and it was the anti-immigrant right, in fact, that was looking out for African-American interests.  Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver (D-MO), a Methodist minister, and African-American, did his best to calmly state the obvious:  Smith & his cronies have done nothing to pursue policies that would actually help African-Americans, including more job training and affirmative action, preferring instead to “pit Latinos against Blacks” in a “race to the bottom” at a time of unprecedented joblessness.

The problem for advocates?   There is real job competition occurring in the unskilled sector of the economy that a recession as deep as this one has sharply magnifies.  Witness those cases – admittedly rather few, but of course, widely cited by the right – in which illegal immigrants were driven out, and a largely Black workforce came in to replace them – and at higher wages no less.  But research shows that these cases exist on the margins of the economy, especially in the South, and in areas with unusually large concentrations of illegal immigrants, and extremely high Black joblessness.  Broadly speaking, native-born workers, especially youth, are increasingly opting out of the most dangerous and stultifying unskilled jobs, leaving newcomer Latino immigrants and Latinos who arrived earlier to compete for them.  Assuming the economy starts to recover, this trend will only continue, though it will probably never eliminate some measure of competition between the native- and foreign-born.

But the right’s not really interested in discussing labor market economics.  By clinging to the fantasy that all 7 million illegal aliens currently working in could be replaced virtually overnight by native born-workers – as if unemployed “Joe Plumbers” in Iowa would agree to ship themselves off to California to replace farm workers forced back to Mexico  – long-time restrictionists like Smith get to recast their opposition to legalization – and to immigration, generally – as a populist defense of American workers.   Gone are last year’s high-profile attacks on the long-enshrined principle of “birthright” citizenship, which a majority of Americans support, according to polls.  With the Latino vote increasingly up for grabs, cleaning up the right’s rabid nativism in allow the GOP to make fresh inroads among America’s fastest-growing ethnioc constituency has become a top priority for Bush-era Republican moderates seeking to unseat Obama, and to win back the Senate in 2012.

And the Obama administration?  After two years of foot-dragging on immigration – and despite its high-profile lawsuit against Arizona that was intended to embarrass the right and rally Latinos, but that failed to galvanize independent voters – you might think that the White House had finally figured out a different strategy for combating the conservative offensive.  You’d be wrong.   Despite yet another high-minded statement of support for immigration reform during his State of the Union address, Obama iscontinuing to use his administrative authority to ratchet up immigration enforcement – stepping up immigration audits of businesses suspected of hiring illegal aliens and pushing ahead with the controversial Secure Communities program.  Obama’s advisers still think by demonstrating “toughness,” they will establish more political credibility with conservatives, and eventually establish a broader base of support for legalization.  But, as polls show, that support is already there.  What’s lacking is Obama’s willingness to take the lead, crack legislative heads, and make the compromises necessary to forge a bipartisan deal.

In fact, simply blaming the GOP for blocking immigration reform isn’t even convincing many Latino voters any more.  In polls, they pretty much blame both parties equally for failing to make progress to date, which means moderate Republicans who aren’t completely hostile to Latino aspirations – like Newt Gingrich, and especially Jeb Bush – are likely to get a fair hearing – and a fair amount of Latino support – if they also offer compelling strategies for reducing the deficit and stimulating job growth.  These issues concern Latinos as much as anyone else – and in fact, more than immigration in the final analysis, because Latino voters aren’t immigrants, legal or otherwise, even if many of their family members and friends are.  And when Democrats try to appeal to Latinos on the immigration issue alone, or to exploit it narrowly, they get mixed results, as we saw last November.    It worked in several states in the Southwest only because the GOP candidates – like Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Meg Whitman in California – virtually self-destructed over missteps with Latinos during the final weeks of the campaign.  It’s doubtful that Democrats will get so lucky in 2012.

As a sign of just how confusing – and counterproductive – the immigration debate has become, Democrats recently went on the attack against Republicans for backing a budget bill that would cut funding for border security, all in the name of reducing government spending and trimming the federal deficit.   Suddenly, it’s the Republicans who are “weak” on border security, while the Democrats are its principled defender.  We’re likely to see a similar role reversal play out if Congress ever gets around to debating new strategies for “workplace verification” – the new generation of database systems that are supposed to turn employers into more effective immigration cops.  Republicans want to see an expansion of the system known as “E-Verify,” which is currently in use in the federal sector, but largely on a voluntary trial basis.  A dozen states, including Arizona, have also mandated its use at the state level.   Smith’s House Judiciary Committee held its very first hearing on this subject, calling in two government witnesses to testify that E-Verify’s been sufficiently “de-bugged” to be extended nationwide.

Immigration advocates oppose E-Verify, as do libertarians at the CATO Institute, and other defenders of citizen’s privacy on both sides of spectrum.  But here’s the rub: pro-immigration reform Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and moderate Republicans like South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham – who’s recently indicated that he might play ball with the White House on immigration again, after abruptly pulling out last year – advocate a tamper-proof Social Security card as the magic bullet for solving illegal hiring at the workplace.  Under their plan, which is included in the Senate Democrats’ latest reform proposal, all US residents, citizens and non-citizens alike, will be required to purchase and acquire the new tamper-proof card, and for those without ready access to their original birth certificates, or who lost them, verifying nativity won’t be so easy.  The Schumer plan, in theory, will solve one of the great unsolved problems with E-Verify:  the widespread use of false social security numbers, and some cases, blatant identity theft by illegal immigrants.  But critics say that by forcing all US residents to re-verify their eligibility to work illegally, even before they apply for a new job, it holds everyone hostage to illegal immigration, and introduces what amounts to a national ID card.

Right now Graham supports the card, but he’s unlikely to win much support from his GOP colleagues.  GOP nativists like Smith are staunchly committed to E-Verify, on the grounds that it’s already up and running and despite its flaws, will provide a useful deterrent. Tea Partiers, meanwhile, see the Schumer plan as Big Brother, and even some moderates are now pushing a third alternative, known as NEVA – essentially a new, more efficient database than E-Verify, and a less draconian Democratic plan than Schumer’s.  Which means if Obama keeps backing Schumer, as he has thus far, the White House and the Democrats will be positioning themselves to the right of the GOP on workplace enforcement – offering by far the most sweeping plan.  But the idea that Democrats can gain politically by trying to “out-tough” the GOP on enforcement is absurd.  No one believes that the GOP is “soft” on illegal immigrants, and the only fall-out from suggesting as much – at the workplace, as well as most recently, the border – will be to further weaken Obama’s standing with Latinos at a time of record-level deportations.

So, don’t expect Obama and Cardenal to come anywhere close to forging the kind of bi-national deal on immigration that George W. Bush tried to accomplish with his counterpart, Vicente Fox, in 2001.  Calderon, no doubt, like his countrymen, would love to make a deal, which likely include a guest worker program and other measures the were first put on the table by President Reagan three decades ago.

But Obama remains an uneasy statesman on immigration, completely out of his element when it comes to discusing the policy details, or expending real political capital with Congress and the voters.  Rumor has it that the White House plans to serve the classic Mexican breakfast, “huevos rancheros,” to the Mexican president, before the two sit down to discuss the more politically convenient topic of drug trafficking and gang warfare.  But Obama may have to find the ingredients at a local bodega.  “Huevos,” it appears, are still in short supply.

STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist.  He can be reached at




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Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at

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