Commentary Magazine


A Saner Approach Toward Immigrants

I will grant you that President Obama has brazenly political motives for announcing on Friday that immigration agents would no longer deport roughly 800,000 young, illegal immigrants who meet certain criteria (e.g., no criminal record and either military service or school attendance). This is an obvious play for Latino votes and an attempt to preempt Sen. Marco Rubio’s plan along similar lines. I will also agree with critics who question whether the president has the right to enact this sweeping change by fiat when legislation to accomplish this goal–the DREAM Act–has been stalled in Congress. But all that aside,  I believe Obama’s move is right on the merits.

There are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. For all the tough talk on the right about deportations, there is no realistic prospect that any but a tiny minority will ever be deported. That leaves a vast number of people living in a shadow economy where they are not allowed to work legally, subject to exploitation, and are, in effect, exempt from the protections of the law. This is not a tenable, long-term status quo. The sooner those who are here can be moved into a more legal status where they can work legally and pay taxes, the better.

Fears that this is an “amnesty” that will encourage further illegal immigration seem overblown. The latest figures show a rapid decline in illegal immigration from Mexico–by some estimates, more Mexicans are leaving the U.S. than entering it, the Mexican economy has picked up while ours has slowed down. Undoubtedly economic necessity will dictate the extent of migration into the U.S. in the future, as it has in the past.

In any case, there is nothing incompatible between tough border enforcement and steps to legalize immigrants already here: They are simply two sides of the same coin, two complementary approaches designed to address the issue of illegal immigration and its consequences.

I have long thought that the DREAM Act was an excellent starting point for a saner approach to immigration law–one that would allow young people who have lived upright lives to become normal Americans, just like countless generations of immigrants before them, rather than being trapped in a legal netherworld where they must always fear a knock on the door from immigration agents.

Assuming that President Obama’s executive order on Friday passes legal challenges, it is a step forward toward a more realistic approach toward immigrants–one that thoughtful Republicans such as Marco Rubio have also championed and that other Republicans should give serious consideration to rather than engaging in histrionic attacks that will only cost the GOP badly needed Latino votes.