Immigration Returns

The American public was fed up with hordes of aliens pouring into the country, speaking foreign tongues and threatening to take jobs from native-born citizens. So Congress took decisive action, and passed the Emergency Quota Act. It was 1921, and the new law, designed to solve the country's immigration problem, limited immigration from any one country to 3 percent of the population from that country counted in the 1910 census -- so if there were 100,000 immigrants from a particular nation already here, then only 3,000 more could be admitted per year. But countries in the Western Hemisphere were exempt -- as many Canadians as wanted could immigrate, and the doors were wide open to Mexicans, Salvadorans, Brazilians, and everyone else from Latin America. At the time, the invaders that threatened to dilute the American character were thought to come from our east (especially southern Europe) and west (China) but not our north and south.

It was neither the first nor last time that concerns over immigration reached the point where politicians felt compelled to pass a law to clamp down on it. So when President Barack Obama gave a speech last week expressing his desire for comprehensive immigration reform, it couldn't help but feel like one more installment in a debate that has gone on for all our history. The details may change, but the debate will probably never end.

Nevertheless, we can give Obama credit for speaking to us like adults. He noted that for all the admirable values underlying the country's founding, "the ink on our Constitution was barely dry when, amidst conflict, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which placed harsh restrictions on those suspected of having foreign allegiances." And he discussed the problems with the legal immigration system, which is the most neglected aspect of this issue.

The coverage of the speech, however, was dismissive -- reporters invariably noted that prospects for the passage of comprehensive reform are slim and described the speech as little more than a ploy to turn out Hispanic voters this fall. It's true that there is little incentive for politicians to produce comprehensive reform. It's guaranteed to displease much of the public, while there is a powerful incentive to play on people's fears and resentments. This debate is always going to be driven by nativists like Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly doing their part on the airwaves, while nincompoops and opportunists like Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer advance their electoral fortunes by showing how "tough" they can be. (In just the last week, Brewer asserted that the majority of undocumented immigrants are "drug mules," then claimed that beheaded bodies were showing up in Arizona's deserts. When contacted by news organizations, law-enforcement authorities had no idea what Brewer was talking about.)

The impulse to demagogue runs particularly strong in the Republican Party, where there is a significant portion of voters whose blood boils when they hear someone speaking a foreign language. We saw it in the 2008 presidential primary, which became a contest to see who could be the most anti-immigrant, with much thumping of chests and accusations about Rudy Giuliani's sanctuary city and Mitt Romney's Guatemalan landscapers. Amid the fury, eventual nominee John McCain proclaimed that he had switched positions and now stood in firm opposition to a comprehensive immigration bill sponsored by ... John McCain.

That act is being repeated now; President Obama last week called out 11 Republican senators who supported immigration reform in the past but have since flipped. Some, like Sens. Lindsay Graham and Richard Lugar, say the political timing just isn't right for reform. It's true that election season isn't conducive to passing complex bills bound to antagonize some portion of the electorate, and working with the administration isn't exactly the thing to do in Republican circles these days. But the excuse that if we wait, the politics will improve means we'll probably wait forever. The number of undocumented immigrants dropped by nearly a million in 2009, but that did nothing to improve the politics of the issue.

Others say that they support reform, just not until we first secure the borders. Or rather, the "border" -- just like in 1921, we're not worried about Canadians coming over. This argument -- that we should "secure the borders first" before we undertake comprehensive immigration reform -- is one conservatives offer a lot these days. But what exactly is a "secure" border? Is it a border that is absolutely impossible to cross without proper documentation? If so, then the only "secure" borders that have ever existed were in places like East Berlin during the Cold War. In the future it may be more or less difficult for people to cross our borders, but they will never be completely "secure." Saying we have to secure the borders before reforming immigration is like saying we have to eliminate all use of illegal drugs before we can reform our drug laws. It's really a way of saying we shouldn't ever have reform.

In fact, whatever else you can say about our immigration policy, you can't say we haven't been working to "secure the borders." As a report released last week by the Center for American Progress detailed, the money and personnel devoted to patrolling the border has increased dramatically in the last few years. The budget of U.S. Customs and Border Protection has doubled since 2004. In 2006 there were slightly more than 12,000 Border Patrol agents; there are now more than 20,000. The government has erected hundreds of miles of fencing and deployed unmanned aerial vehicles to look for people crossing over. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is detaining and deporting more people than ever before.

The part of the equation that gets lost in all the talk of fences and deportations is the legal immigration system, which makes moving to the United States extraordinarily difficult (thereby encouraging illegal immigration). As Obama said during his speech, "Backlogs and bureaucracy means the process can take years. While an applicant waits for approval, he or she is often forbidden from visiting the United States -- which means even husbands and wives may be forced to spend many years apart. High fees and the need for lawyers may exclude worthy applicants. And while we provide students from around the world visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities, our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or power a new industry right here in the United States." "Comprehensive" reform means reforming that system, too.

It's good to hear the president make a speech saying the right things about immigration. He not only discussed the legal immigration system, he spoke truthfully about our history of nativism, described the centrality of immigration to the American character and the American economy, detailed the complex but necessary task of moving undocumented immigrants toward citizenship, and even complimented George W. Bush for advocating comprehensive reform. But without a little more courage in Congress -- which means tackling the problem even though you'll be sure some people who would like to live behind walls will yell about it -- reform will be put off to a more politically opportune moment. Which is another way of saying it will be put off indefinitely.

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