The prospects for legislation before the next election may be minimal, but it’s good that President Obama is making the case for comprehensive immigration reform. One can question his sincerity, of course. Since he knows that nothing is going to happen, he can aim to build support for Democrats among Hispanic voters, an increasingly significant group, without much risk of offending too many others. But his position on immigration reform happens to be right. Mending the immigration system is, as he said, an “economic imperative”, both to meet shortages of skilled labor and to bring the illicit migrant economy on to the books, thus helping to repair the tax base. Republicans richly deserve to be punished for their obduracy on the issue.
Obama is pushing the familiar three-part strategy: tighter security controls at and behind the border; a more liberal regime for highly skilled immigrants; and a pathway (maybe a too-difficult pathway) to legal status for the 11m illegal immigrants already in the country. It is essentially the same formula that George W. Bush proposed, and that once-moderate Republicans such as John McCain used to back. It was good policy then and still is.
In El Paso Obama emphasised the progress made on security. He was rather modest, in fact, preferring not to draw attention to the surge in deportations on his watch–an achievement that would give his target audience pause. He was right to mock Republicans for first insisting on better border security and then refusing, now this has been addressed, to move on the rest of the plan. Nothing is good enough for the GOP, he said. “Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they’ll want alligators in the moat.”
If the president is to move public opinion on the issue, he will need to keep it up. And he should address himself not just to the Republicans he is seeking to embarrass, but to those Democrats and unions that also doubt the case for a more liberal immigration system. Difficult as it may be to dislodge, the idea that immigrants steal jobs from Americans is factually wrong. In the aggregate, the present system hurts most Americans by holding back the economy, shrinking the tax base, and encouraging the offshoring of skilled employment.