from Renewing America

Obama, Romney, and Immigration: The Indefensible Status Quo

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush shakes hands with then-U.S. Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio in Coral Gables, Florida in November 2010 (Hans Deryk/Courtesy Reuters).
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush shakes hands with then-U.S. Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio in Coral Gables, Florida in November 2010 (Hans Deryk/Courtesy Reuters).

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No one expects any congressional action this year, or probably anytime soon after that, to end the enormous waste of the current immigration system. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that the leaders of both parties are in a morally indefensible position. And that makes positive change more likely than it’s been in a long time.

Let’s take the Democrats first. The Washington Post had a fascinating piece of in-depth reporting last weekend on how President Obama during his first term dealt with the political pressure from two big liberal constituencies – gay rights activists and immigration reformers. On immigration, the article showed the president at his worst – defensive, short-tempered, quick to blame others, and reflexively backing positions quite at odds with his own stated values. He came into office promising in his first year to pass reform legislation that would legalize many of the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants; instead he has presided over the highest number of deportations, at roughly 400,000 per year, of any president.

How indefensible is this? Well, the next day the Post ran another big story, this one on a Guatemalan-born girl in Virginia named Heydi Mejia, who had been brought here illegally by her parents when she was just five years old. Like her peers at Meadowbrook High School in Chesterfield, she was supposed to be celebrating graduation from school; she had ended the year with awards from the National Honor Society and the school’s AP program. But unlike her peers, she was set not to go on to college but instead was scheduled in a few days to be deported along with her mother.

The Obama administration’s “prosecutorial discretion” policy makes it quite clear that young people like Heydi should not be deported. But as the reformers have repeatedly told the administration, such people are still being removed from the country regularly. Unless, that is, somebody shines a big light on the case. In this case, the Post did, and the next day the Department of Homeland Security suspended Heydi and her mother’s deportation for a year.

Here’s a rule of thumb: if you can’t defend a policy when its consequences are made public, it’s not a good policy.

How about the Republicans? Presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigned hard on the issue in the primaries, accusing the Obama administration of being too lax on enforcement, and calling for still harsher measures that would persuade illegal migrants to “self-deport.” But on Monday, former Florida governor Jeb Bush rebuked Romney’s stance, calling for Republicans to adopt a “broader approach” that does not rely solely on enforcement. A Bush protégé and potential vice-presidential nominee, Senator Marco Rubio, is expected to introduce shortly a new version of the DREAM Act which would permit many young people like Heydi Mejia to remain in the United States

Bush's interjection was followed by a strong statement Tuesday from a broad coalition of conservative evangelical groups, including Focus on the Family, calling for a policy that allows illegal migrants living in the United States “to come out of the shadows” and “begin the process of restitution.” They explicitly rejected the Romney policy of “self-deportation.”

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, was quoted as saying: "This is the tipping point to finally convince Republican operatives that they must redeem the narrative on immigration reform in order to be a viable party in America's political landscape in the 21st century.”

The Romney campaign response was interesting. Instead of defending self-deportation, a campaign spokesman said: “Governor Romney believes that legal immigration is a source of strength for America and that to protect legal immigration we must address illegal immigration in a civil but resolute manner. As president, Governor Romney would work with any groups on a reform that strengthens legal immigration, secures our borders, respects those who are waiting patiently to enter legally and ensures that we do not encourage further illegal immigration."

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but that sounds an awful lot like the position that Republicans like Jeb Bush have long been advocating. I served as project director for the 2009 CFR Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy, which was co-chaired by Gov. Bush and former Clinton chief of staff Mack McLarty. Rev. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, was also a member of the Task Force. We called for legislation that:

• Reforms the legal immigration system so that it operates more efficiently, responds more accurately to labor market needs, and enhances U.S. competitiveness;

• Restores the integrity of immigration laws through an enforcement regime that strongly discourages employers and employees from operating outside that legal system, secures America's borders, and levies significant penalties against those who violate the rules;

• Offers a fair, humane, and orderly way to allow many of the roughly twelve million migrants currently living illegally in the United States to earn the right to remain legally.

Those three pillars are still the basics of any sensible immigration reform. Certainly, none of this is likely in the near term. But the discussion in both parties marks a growing recognition that the status quo on immigration is indefensible, which makes long overdue change a real possibility.

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