If the recent spate of Republican debates is any indication, immigration policy and “border control” will be highly contentious issues in the 2012 presidential election. Nor is this surprising — immigration has perennially shown itself to be an issue that raises our political blood-pressures. Immigration cuts to the bone of so many things that Americans are concerned about: jobs and the economy; social entitlement spending; security; foreign policy; and American cultural ideals. However, after the balloons have dropped, when the election is over, when the red, white, and blue bunting is folded up and packed away for another 4 years — few of these promises will find their way into policy.
Consider Barack Obama. During the 2008 campaign he pledged comprehensive immigration reform. After his election, he stated that he intended to make progress on the reforms “before year’s end.” These included creating a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally and fixing a dysfunctional immigration bureaucracy. In exchange, he would support Republican efforts at enhancing border security via an enforcement-based model.
Obama has certainly provided the latter. It’s a misnomer to think that because he is a Democrat he is “soft” on immigration enforcement. Deportation rates for those apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) show that as of September 2011, “… the Obama administration had deported about 1.06 million [individuals] as of September 12, against 1.57 million in Bush’s two full presidential terms.”
Obama had always pitched greater enforcement as necessary to gain support for creating paths to citizenship. It was the necessary means to ensure bipartisan support for proposed legislation such as the DREAM act, which would allow immigrant high school students living in the country illegally the means to attain conditional permanent residency, attend college, and perhaps become citizens. However, on these dimensions of the issue, little to no progress has been made.
This is not to say that the Republicans propose solutions that will address the issue in a meaningful and lasting way. Thus far, it appears that the Republicans have used the issue as a means to stoke the anti-immigrant tendencies of their political base: security fences, more border patrol agents, reducing bureaucracy, biometric identification cards.
They ignore the fact that the problem of illegal immigration is primarily a structural economic problem. No fortified fence is going to change the fact that a life in El Paso, Texas is one of relative opulence and life in Juarez, Mexico is often one of poverty, political instability, violence, and crime. Immigrants along our southern border are not sucked here by the power of some giant magnet. Economic conditions create a powerful incentive to take the risks associated with illegal entry. Until Republicans recognize this, any approaches to the issue commence from the wrong starting point.
Much has been made of the importance of the growing Latino demographic in this and future presidential elections. Ultimately, these voters are going to demand a lasting and humane solution to the immigration issue in this country. Currently, neither party seems to have the sense or the political will to provide it.
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