More on immigration

I’m hoisting this valuable comment from Roger Algase in response to my column last week on immigration up to the main page.

The last paragraph of this article, about the need for executive action in favor of liberalizing the immigration system is especially apt. However, few people who do not deal with the immigration system on a day to day basis, which I do as an immigration lawyer, realize how much executive action on immigration there has been since Obama took office. The problem is that almost all of it has been in the direction of making the immigration system harsher and more punitive, with regard to both legal and illegal immigration.

When Obama first took office, everyone expected movement in the other direction. As a candidate, he had courageously spoken out against making immigrants scapegoats, and had taken quite a bit of heat for that remark. One of the first things he did on becoming president was to put an end to high profile workplace raids and mass roundups of illegal immigrants which the Bush administration has instituted after the defeat of the bipartisan “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” bill failed in the Senate in 2007 (the bill would actually have been a disaster for all but a few super educated skilled legal immigrants and a handful of very lucky unskilled illegal ones), that President George W. Bush had backed.

Obama’s administration also quickly reversed one of the most odious policies of the Bush administration, put into effect shortly before Bush left office, which would have deprived immigrants facing deportation proceedings of their right to counsel. But from there, everything went downhill for immigrant rights. As head of the Department of Homeland Security, Obama appointed Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor who had signed the harshest state immigration law in the nation before the one signed by the current governor. (To be fair, Napolitano had vetoed some bills which more closely resembled Arizona’s notorious S.B. 1070). Ironically, the Obama administration is now fighting both Napolitano’s law, dealing with employer sanctions, and current Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s draconian law in court. Napolitano has focused almost exclusively on enforcement, and shown almost no interest in making the visa system more equitable.

Therefore, aside from the above steps, Obama’s approach has been mainly to combine draconian enforcement against illegal immigrants with a policy of slamming the doors against legal ones. His administration has deported more than 400,000 people, most of them with no criminal record or convicted only of minor crimes. Many of the people deported have American citizens or lawful permanent resident spouses or children, so the deportations have caused great hardship to many US citizens and legal residents.

Recently, the Washington Post ran an article about someone who was deported to Mexico for the crime of drunk driving, even though his wife and six children were all US citizens. These Americans also had to “deport” themselves to Mexico in order to avoid family breakup. There must be tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of other American families facing similar situations.

On the skilled immigration side, the Obama administration has also been a disaster. The more skilled and educated someone is, the harder it is to get a visa or work permit, due to twisted administrative interpretations of the law which have, for example, barred Indian and other foreign computer professionals who work away from the employer’s site, and well as raising the bar so high for people with extraordinary ability to get visas and green cards, that one has to wonder if Einstein would qualify under today’s policies.

Worst of all, almost any employer who follows the rules and obtains a legal work visa for an employee is now under threat of a “fraud” investigation. Last year, the Obama administration announced that 25,000 companies which had hired foreign workers legally, after approval by the immigration office, would receive random visits from government investigators looking for fraud or minor paperwork violations. It is amazing that in this climate of official anti-immigrant witch hunting and paranoia any foreign worker, no matter how skilled and educated, can get hired at all.

Why did a president who began with decent instincts turn against his own supporters in immigrant communities so savagely? Certainly, the recession has something to do with it. But there is also a more cynical political motive. Obama wants to appeal to “centrist” or “independent” voters who largely oppose immigration for racial reasons. They are against the “browning” of America under any circumstances

One of the harshest anti-immigrant laws was signed in 1996 by another Democratic president, Bill Clinton. How was the economy doing then? Not so badly. Terror threats? Yes, they existed. But New York’s twin towers were still standing and would be for another five years. Obama’s insistence that he can do nothing to reverse harsh immigration policies until the Republicans agree on immigration reform, which will happen when they also agree to a 90 percent income tax on their richest campaign donors, is the purest form of hypocrisy.

To use his own expression, the president needs to be “called out” on this hypocritical ploy. Indications are that millions of Latino and other minority American voters from immigrant communities may decide to do just that next year by staying home, or even by voting for the other, and even bigger evil for immigrants, namely the Republicans. No one wants to stay under the bus forever.


Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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