In helping young illegal immigrants stay in the country, President Obama did the right thing for the wrong reason and in a strange context. Obama decreed that illegal immigrants who came here as children could stay without fear of deportation, if the following conditions are met: They’ve been in the country for at least five years. They’re in school or high-school graduates, or have served in the military. They are under 30 and have committed no crimes. More than 1 million people may qualify.
This was the beating heart of the Dream Act, stopped in 2010 by Senate Republicans. The major difference is that Obama is not creating an amnesty. He’s letting these young people stay, study and work in the United States without harassment for periods of two years, which can be renewed.
The beneficiaries are quite blameless. Their parents brought them to America as children. Having grown up here, these kids are for all practical purposes American. When it comes time for a real amnesty, these are the sort of young people we would put first in line. And if America had a normal immigration program, many in this group would have been welcomed through the front door.
Meanwhile, Obama’s executive action covers only those who have obtained or are getting a basic education and have been law-abiding. Thus, it excludes illegal immigrants who could pose a burden on our society (even if they arrived at age 2).
Obama clearly chose the timing for political reasons. The obvious objective is to woo Latino voters, who will play key roles in several swing states this November.
Actually, polls show most Hispanics not overly supportive of open-border policies that lead to depressed wages. But they are understandably aggravated at seeing the occasional young person pulled out of the neighborhood and sent to a country that he or she would consider foreign.
The context for Obama’s move is quite interesting. Obama is the first president in a long time to have taken the immigration laws seriously. He’s been going after employers who hire undocumented workers. Deportations during his administration have exceeded 1 million, the most since 1950. His active enforcement of the immigration laws has made him suspect among some Hispanic activists while winning scant praise from right-wingers. So this modest move toward immigration reform makes political sense.
But do we want an immigration program that changes as a function of the next election? No. We should want a panel of experts determining our labor needs on an annual basis. How many people and what skills does our economy require? And we should want these experts to recognize that unskilled workers belong to the same labor market that assures good pay for scarce biochemists. No iron law of the universe forbids letting their wages rise along with demand for their services.
During the recent Republican candidates’ debates, some of the talk on immigration approached ugly. All the contenders, Mitt Romney included, vowed to oppose even the modestly conceived Dream Act. Now the assumed nominee, Romney is modulating his views a bit, calling Obama’s move a block to a bipartisan solution rather than a reward for lawbreaking.
A reasonable bipartisan solution would create a tight system for enforcing the laws against hiring illegal workers — one that would include biometric identification (such as scans of the eye’s iris), which can’t be counterfeited. It would sponsor a last amnesty to put most illegal immigrants “on the path to citizenship.” And it would include the aforementioned panel to monitor the program with an eye toward what’s good for the country. Say that again: What’s good for the country.
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.