On immigration, President Obama needs to step up and lead

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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How do we get beyond the inflammatory and self-defeating polemics of our current immigration debate?  Sadly, the new Congress is shaping up to be just as divisive and deadlocked as the last one.

The new Republican majority in the House, already drunk with power, plans to introduce legislation to repeal “birthright” citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.  It’s hard to imagine a more deliberate and ugly provocation.  Even if a toned-down version of the bill ends up passing the Senate, which is unlikely, Obama’s certain to veto it.  And there will be lawsuits galore.

For many Latinos, the repeal push will only confirm their worst fears: the GOP doesn’t really care about illegal immigration — it’s simply out to get them.  What a stupid signal to send after making such impressive inroads with Latino voters in November.  Even long-time immigration critics like Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies oppose the new legislation.  They say it’s a distraction — and won’t actually reduce illegal immigration by that much.

Not that the immigration lobby is helping matters much.  With the support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), it’s pushing for passage of the so-called Dream Act during the upcoming “lame-duck” session of Congress.  Lame-duck sessions are sometimes needed to address a nation’s unfinished business — no question.  But they’re not intended to allow outgoing members of Congress one last chance to pass unpopular pieces of legislation before the incoming Congress is seated.  It’s an affront to the voters, and to basic democratic principles.

In fact, prior to the midterms, the Democrats tried to pass the Dream Act as an amendment to the defense authorization bill, but a GOP filibuster threat nipped that effort in the bud.  And with his party defeated, Reid’s even less likely to find a moderate Republican like Susan Collins (R-ME) to defect to his side.  Even many Democrats, including staunch supporters of the Dream Act, are likely to blanch, given the stakes.  Twenty-three Senate Democrats are up for re-election in 2012 compared to just ten Republicans.  A controversial Dream vote is likely to incur the wrath of independent voters, costing some Democrats their seats.

For their own sake — and for their party’s sake — Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would do well to reconsider.

In the meantime, President Obama needs to fill the widening void between the two parties.  Since taking office, he’s placated his liberal base with pro-reform rhetoric while refusing to risk his capital or reputation on the issue.  Now, Obama’s ideally positioned to do for immigration reform what Bill Clinton did for welfare reform: tack to the center and use his extraordinary good will with the American people to build a broader consensus among moderates in the two parties.  For the good of the country, it’s time for Obama to step up — and out — on his own.

First, to defuse the far right, the president should formally “de-couple” amnesty from the rest of immigration reform. That doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning legalization as a goal — just placing it on the back burner, at least through 2012.  Of course, immigration advocates, including Dream supporters, will howl.  But most voters, including many Democrats, won’t.  They support the GOP’s strategy of “enforcement first” and are less inclined to be compassionate toward illegal immigrants when joblessness is so high.

Let’s start, then, by finishing the enforcement agenda — not just at the border, but at the workplace, too.  After all, it’s the “job magnet” that largely drives illegal immigration.  And it’s the abject failure of “employer sanctions” — much more than our porous frontier with Mexico — that has allowed the problem to fester for so long.

The next big step is visa reform.  At some point, the economy will recover.  When it does, we’ll need new legal channels in place to regulate the flow of foreign labor as a complement to native-born labor.  That’s especially true of foreign scientists and engineers on temporary visas, many of whom would like to migrate here permanently.

But if we don’t streamline the visa process, they’ll end up migrating to other countries.  Some already have, and it’s weakening our competitiveness and could undermine our long-term recovery.

Third, the president needs to change his immigration “messaging.”  He should stop focusing so much on aid to illegal immigrants, which divides us, and start focusing more on supporting legal immigrants, which can unite us.

Most legal immigrants aren’t poor Latinos.  They’re more likely to be upwardly mobile Europeans or Asians; and in fact, many tilt Republican.  That means, with legal immigrants, there aren’t the same number of slam-dunk liberal Democratic votes to be had.

But in fact, when people say “America’s a nation of immigrants,” they’re not talking about people wading across the Rio Grande, or jumping border fences.  Obama would do well to place his immigration politics more squarely in the mainstream, where most voters — including most Latinos, the majority of whom aren’t immigrants — are found.

At the same time, if we don’t offer Mexican laborers more permanent work visas, or an expanded contract labor program, no border fence is going to keep them out, especially when the economy recovers and the demand for foreign labor resumes.  According to a recent authoritative report by the Pew Hispanic Center, that’s already happening.  Obama — and the country — has no time to lose.

Make no mistake: the debates over workplace enforcement and visa reform will be contentious.  There will be arguments over how best to protect and encourage American jobs and wages, while reaping the broader economic benefits of immigration.  Some will want to preserve, and others to scale back, the ability of legal immigrants to “sponsor” other family members for green cards.  And privacy groups, including many conservatives, will resist turning employers into more effective immigration cops by mandating use of a workplace verification system like “E-Verify.”

But at least these arguments will be fruitful.  In the end, we’ll be fixing the immigration system with constructive legislation, rather than merely posturing and pointing fingers.

The voters who spoke on November 2 want real solutions to pressing national problems like immigration.  Ultimately, it’s the president’s job to make sure they get these solutions.  If history is any guide, Obama will surely benefit from doing so.  But both parties would rightly claim a hand in the victory.  “E pluribus unum” isn’t just our creed or our heritage.  It’s also the way we get the nation’s business done.  On immigration, it’s time Democrats and Republicans became the party of “yes.”

Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.