Food for thought on the immigration question

Food for thought on the immigration question

- in Weekly Briefing


Useful information for your Thanksgiving dinner table debates

It’s that time of year again. You know: the week during which families all over America come together to give thanks, overeat, shop and, frequently, spout opinions on the controversies of the day. If this latter activity sounds familiar and you’re already girding yourself for Uncle Abner’s annual Bill O’Reilly-inspired onslaught, here are a few facts and arguments on an issue that’s currently much in the national spotlight. (It may not cause Abner to pipe down, but it might open the hearts and minds of an innocent bystander or two at the dinner table.)

The issue, of course is America’s broken immigration system and President Obama’s recent order temporarily delaying the deportation of as many as five million of the 11-plus million immigrants who are currently in the United States without proper immigration documents. To say that this is an issue that’s generated more heat than light would be an understatement. Here, therefore, are a few flares of truth that might help you to at least refute some of the worst myths that you’ll confront in the coming days:

#1 – The President’s order is a modest-sized strip of duct tape on a large and broken system – America’s immigration system has been badly broken for many, many years and is in desperate need of a comprehensive overhaul. Unfortunately, given the refusal of the U.S. House of Representatives to even allow a vote on a bipartisan reform bill that passed the Senate with 68 votes last year (and that would have made important progress), President Obama came to the conclusion that he simply could not stand idly by while the system utterly collapsed and ruined millions of lives.

So, the President has taken action. It is hardly perfect or all that is needed, but it does take an important step to try and keep as many families together as possible – at least for the time being. As the good people at the American Immigration Council explained last Friday: “…the primary beneficiaries will be the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (LPR) as well as immigrants who qualify under the expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.”

#2 – The President’s order was lawful – Whether you agree with it or not, President Obama’s decision isn’t unconstitutional or unprecedented. Every one of the last several U.S. presidents going back to Eisenhower has done something similar. Even a panel of experts at the arch-conservative Federalist Society – a national right-wing lawyers’ organization – concedes that the President has long been vested with the discretion to prioritize which persons his administration will prosecute for violations of the law – especially in the field of immigration.

Now, it’s true that the President’s action was the largest of its kind in terms of the sheer number of people helped, but of course, the current U.S. population – both of natives and immigrants – is much larger than it’s ever been. In terms of the percentage of the immigrant population helped, Obama’s order is only slightly more impactful than one taken by President George H.W. Bush.

The bottom line on this question: For those uncomfortable with the authority that the President exercised, there is a simple and obvious solution that doesn’t amount to the wild and futile flailing of suing or impeaching him. That solution is to pass comprehensive immigration reform that changes the rules and limits his authority.

#3 – Even if it were somehow desirable, it is simply not possible to deport the vast majority of immigrants who are living peaceful and productive lives – As the President noted in his speech:

But even as we focus on deporting criminals, the fact is, millions of immigrants — in every state, of every race and nationality — will still live here illegally. And let’s be honest – tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you. It’s also not who we are as Americans.”

He’s right, of course. The only way to ever pull off such a monumental feat would be to establish a massive police and military presence throughout our country that would make the KGB look tame by comparison. Indeed, it’s one of the great ironies of the debate that so many of the people attacking Obama on this issue for not doing enough are the very same ones who repeatedly and falsely accuse the President of wanting somehow to establish a “police state” in the realms of gun control and health care policy.

#4 – Building a 2,000 mile wall and/or further militarizing our southern border is a terrible idea It was General George Patton who was famously credited with saying that “fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man.” He was right, of course. And so it is with the kooky idea of building, maintaining and patrolling a vast and modern “Great Wall of America” across thousands of miles of some of the planet’s harshest wilderness. Not only would it be calamitously expensive, the chances of “success” are remote at best. If anything, U.S. border enforcement is already huge, bureaucratic, and overly-militarized and frequently violent and unaccountable.

Perhaps more important is the dreadful symbolism that such a monument would send to the rest of the world. Is it really the goal of 21st Century Americans to replace the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty with a new symbol modeled on life in Cold War East Germany, Apartheid-era South Africa and modern day Gaza?

#5 – On the whole, immigrants help the economy and American workers – It’s a simplistically appealing argument that immigrants undercut American workers and there are, no doubt, some circumstances in which it can happen. As a more general matter, however, there is no doubt amongst experts that immigration stimulates economic growth which, in turn, benefits us all. As Leo Gerard, the President of the United Steelworkers Union and fierce defender of American workers, wrote yesterday:

A study by the Bipartisan Policy Center found that immigration reform is good for the economy, while inaction is destructive.

The task force that produced the study, co-chaired by former governors from both parties, said immigration reform would be a powerful instrument of economic revitalization: ‘The results make clear that reform has the potential to significantly increase the number of young, working-age people in the economy. This influx of labor would spur economic growth, reduce federal deficits, help the housing sector and mitigate the effects of an aging population. By contrast, preventing unauthorized immigration without providing replacement labor would cause severe damage to the economy.’”

#6 – The President’s action was the right thing to do – It’s hard to see how keeping millions of American families together rather than breaking them up involuntarily could ever be a bad thing, but in this case, keeping them together is also clearly the morally correct thing to do. This truth is made all the more poignant and obvious this Thanksgiving week as a huge proportion of our population traverses the country in airports and hotels frequently cleaned and maintained by immigrant laborers and partakes in feasts made possible by immigrant agricultural and food processing workers.

Perhaps this is why a huge proportion of Americans support real immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship (something much more than the President’s bandage provides). They understand, notwithstanding the shrill claims of the Tea Party, that America is and always will be a nation of immigrants and one in which a faith in diversity, change and progress will always trump the narrow and backward-looking fears of the nativists and excluders.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


(Thanksgiving dinner image above file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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