President Barack Obama's critics say the administration is dangerously complacent on border security. Last month, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona accused the administration of holding the Southwest border "hostage" by using border security as an immigration-reform bargaining chip. The union that represents the Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently accused the political leadership at ICE of "abandoning" the "agency's core mission of enforcing U.S. immigration laws and providing for public safety." Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa waved around a leaked memo from the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services outlining how the administration could prevent certain illegal immigrants from being deported, accusing the administration of having a "backdoor amnesty plan."
Republican resistance to any kind of immigration reform and the administration's own lofty rhetoric of acceptance obscure the fact that while President Obama talks like an immigration moderate, in practice his actions are those of an unapologetic immigration hawk who has tightened border security without fulfilling his promise of immigration reform. The administration has been deporting illegal immigrants at a higher rate than the Bush administration and is deploying unmanned drones and more than a thousand National Guard troops to secure the border. On Tuesday, with the administration's support, Congress approved more funding for border security, deploying more resources to border security and adding more Border Patrol agents, law enforcement, and drones to the effort.
Even as the Justice Department sues Arizona over its draconian new anti-immigration law that forces local law enforcement to ascertain the immigration status of anyone stopped for any reason, the Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday it was expanding the "Secure Communities" program to all 25 counties along the Southwest border. Secure Communities compels local law enforcement in participating jurisdictions to forward the fingerprints of anyone arrested -- not just convicted of a crime but arrested -- to ICE so they can be targeted for deportation if they're in the country illegally. Secure Communities also resembles Arizona's SB 1070 in that even though the program is ostensibly aimed at dangerous criminals, based on the Department of Homeland Security's own numbers, 79 percent of individuals snared by the program either aren't criminal or were picked up for minor offenses. In practice, what this means is that like SB 1070, a minor infraction can be pretext for checking the immigration status of someone suspected of being in the country illegally merely because of their ethnic background.
Despite the administration's aggressive enforcement of anti-illegal immigration laws, Republicans haven’t shown any interest in moving forward on immigration reform. The administration is struggling even to pass the DREAM Act, which would exempt from deportation high school graduates who were brought to the U.S. by their parents before the age of 16. These are exactly the type of hardworking, English-speaking, Americanized immigrants Republicans say they want, but the GOP is balking at reform.
The debate over immigration mirrors previous debates over national security and health care. On national security, the administration's policies have largely been a continuation of the previous administration, and the Affordable Care Act was based on old Republican alternatives to a single-payer system. No matter how much the Obama administration's own policies represent those once endorsed by Republicans, the GOP reacts to the administration's behavior as a steep descent into socialism, fascism, or lawlessness. The administration's failures in addressing unemployment have contributed to anti-immigrant sentiment, which Republicans have exploited by relying on misinformation about spillover violence from Mexico and the alleged criminality of immigrant communities. Republicans simply aren't interested in granting Obama a legislative victory -- particularly not when anti-immigrant sentiment is such a useful political weapon. On matters of border security, the administration is doing just about everything a Republican might do in his place, which means that Republicans have had to go to even greater extremes just to provide an excuse for not going along.
Republicans like Lindsey Graham and Jon Kyl, who were open to immigration reform under Bush, have now placed their bets on an unlikely repeal of the 14th Amendment's establishment of birthright citizenship, an almost farcical rejection of the proudest part of the GOP legacy -- ending the practice of granting citizenship based on race. Ending birthright citizenship would create a class of stateless individuals who would be pushed even deeper underground, place an increased burden on current citizens -- including the estimated 13 million Americans without easy proof of citizenship -- and mandate an increased and unnecessary role for the federal government in establishing that each and every newborn is in fact a U.S. citizen. When Ronald Reagan said, "Maybe we should just brand all the babies," it was meant to be a joke.
But the worst thing such a repeal would do is shred any sense of mutual social obligation to the larger society second-generation American immigrants possess more effectively than any creative anti-immigrant epithet ever could. It would be the first time in American history that the Constitution was amended specifically with the aim of denying rights to a historically disfavored ethnic group -- and it would set a dangerous precedent by legitimizing any future efforts to do so. Even those who support repealing birthright citizenship for more abstract economic reasons can't avoid the social and political implications of the fact that birthright-citizenship repeal has political momentum largely because of misguided animus toward brown-skinned Spanish-speaking immigrants. Still, Democrats counting on Republican hostility to Hispanics to bring demographic doom to the party should understand that there’s no reason for Hispanics to remain part of the Democratic coalition if Democrats can’t deliver on their side of the bargain.
Obviously, policy debates don't take place independent of politics. But they should bear at least some resemblance to the objective reality, which is that Obama has been tougher on illegal immigration than any of his recent predecessors and has little to show for it. If anyone should be disappointed or angry, it's the immigration-reform advocates who have watched the president deliver on only one side of his promise.