On July 1, with the nation’s 234th anniversary fast approaching, President Obama tried to reignite a national passion for immigration reform, correctly noting the cascade of fiscal and civic ills provoked by the creaking status quo on immigration. The president offered a sober reading of the complicated and treacherous landscape around undocumented immigration in the United States.
Perhaps as many as 12 million current U.S. residents are working and living within the nation’s borders without proper legal status. A generation descended from immigrant stock has turned on the nation’s newcomers without much apparent consciousness of the irony of the source and the effect of their resentment and hostility. The undocumented or fraudulent status of many workers allows them to be exploited by unscrupulous employers and fall victim to human traffickers, and billions in tax revenues are not being properly accounted for. Frustration about lawlessness along the border has led to private citizens’ leading their own dubious initiatives and the passage of legislation like Arizona’s SB 1070, which, despite the many assurances by its proponents to the contrary, will inevitably lead to racial profiling and unconstitutional intimidation and harassment of U.S. citizens. While multitudes wait for a chance to cross the border legally, others, driven by lawlessness and poverty and a lack of opportunity in their homelands, overstay tourist and student visas or make hazardous illegal crossings into the United States.
The president reminded citizens that deportation of undocumented residents is not only impractical; it would also subject U.S. civic life to an unacceptable level of intrusion by government agents and break up families of “mixed” documented and undocumented residents. Chest-thumping rhetoric about forcing the federal government to do its job and seal off the border enlivens conservative punditry. The plain impracticality of that notion is seldom noted. Few Americans really want to see a militarized or walled-off border, and such a vast undertaking would be an unworthy use of our limited resources.
We all know the problems. Settling on solutions for them remains the sticking point. Unfortunately the president’s speech, which could just as easily have been delivered in 2004 as 2010, suggests that he has few new ideas, only a faint hope of reviving the process toward comprehensive reform that was abandoned during the Bush administration. His recent address takes us practically no closer to the comprehensive reform the church has long advocated than a no doubt vain attempt to pressure Congressional Republicans to go along with the process. With the president’s popularity slumping and 2012 looming, they are unlikely to respond positively to the president’s overture.
Perhaps, given the complexity of the problem and the public’s waning appetite for large-scale social policy initiatives, immigration reform will be possible only in fits and starts, swallowed and digested in small doses. In his speech the president called for marginal improvements with which few could argue: better control of our borders, more humane treatment of undocumented migrants and their children, more efficient immigration bureaucracy, more aggressive employer sanctions. He also reiterated his support for one such improvement, the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act—the so-called Dream Act.
This act would allow the children of undocumented residents to move forward with their lives in the United States. Many of these children, like their parents, have no official status in this country. They may have no memory of the countries of their birth; they have lived their lives in the United States invisibly, blending in with their legal classmates without comment or notice. But now, as young people who hope to build lives and families of their own, they find themselves in a unique quandary because of their lack of citizenship. Each year 65,000 such young people graduate from our nation’s high schools with little idea how to get on with their incompletely Americanized lives. “We should stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents by denying them the chance to stay here and earn an education and contribute their talents to build the country where they’ve grown up,” President Obama said in his speech.
The Dream Act enjoys widespread support from Americans of all classes and political persuasions. It is eminently sensible. Surely if Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on an overarching policy as campaign-creep begins to warp policy discussions, they can at least agree to initiate a series of small-scale fixes, like this act, that may one day reflect a just, humane and practical immigration policy.