Americans will know soon enough whether immigration reform, an issue that helped President Obama get re-elected, will be as much of a priority in his second term as it was during the campaign.
It’s got plenty of competition. To note just a few contentious issues, the debt ceiling keeps coming around, gun control has been given new life by 27 deaths in Newtown, Conn., President Obama has Cabinet nominees to push through Senate hearings and Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions remain a threat to regional peace.
None of those, however, should nudge immigration reform aside. Neither should longstanding opposition. This isn’t just as good a time as any to take up reform, it’s better than most.
A recent report by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan organization, notes that the government spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement in 2011, resulting in a record number of detentions and deportations; 340,000 illegal immigrants were caught along U.S. borders. If that sounds like a lot of people, it’s the lowest number in 40 years and is less than one-fourth of the 1.6 million apprehended in 2000.
The government has responded well to immigration opponents’ demands of “enforcement first.” But enforcement isn’t enough, and it hardly constitutes reform. It does nothing, for example, about the 11 million illegal immigrants living here now, a number, by the way, that is at its lowest level in several years.
During the election campaign, the president called for continued tough enforcement. But he also advocated cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants and requiring illegals who plan to stay here to learn English and pay undetermined fines to “get right with the law” before they can earn citizenship. Although President Obama through an executive order last year enabled the children of illegal immigrants to get work permits, he has not yet advanced a comprehensive immigration proposal.
The Republicans, however, have the outlines of a plan, courtesy of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Although what he has in mind is more restrictive than what the president has envisioned, Sen. Rubio’s is not so different that it should preclude compromise. Though not all Republicans are thrilled with Sen. Rubio’s plan, outlined last week, it has the support of Wis. Rep. Paul Ryan, who recognizes that a sensible Republican initiative on immigration reform can cut into Democrats’ strength among Hispanics.
Sen. Rubio wants illegal immigrants to pass criminal background checks, pay fines and demonstrate that they have become assimilated into American culture before being able to acquire a green card and eventual citizenship.
He has said what he envisions “falls somewhere” between deportation and outright amnesty. Precisely where isn’t entirely clear, but avoiding those extremes is a reasonable starting point.