May 22, 2013
It’s the Economy, Stupid!
Posted on Nov 28, 2012
What a difference an election makes.
Several leaders in the Republican Party—and in the conservative media—have suddenly changed their tune, and are now saying we need to seriously look at immigration reform. After years of inaction in Washington, they’re even floating an outline of a proposal that would offer legalization alternatives to undocumented young people, better known as “dreamers.”
Even President Barack Obama seems to be willing to push hard for immigration reform, something that, most objective observers agree, he didn’t do much of during his first term.
A good electoral kick in the behind (or a good push, in the case of Obama) can be a great motivator to change political positions on an issue like immigration, one in which for too long the politics of the lowest common denominator and crass voter strategies have been more important than crafting a policy that helps the nation.
It’s healthy and refreshing to see Republican leaders say anything on this issue beyond suggesting that pressuring people to voluntarily leave the country would somehow solve all our economic troubles. This was the line most of them took, with a few notable exceptions, such as when a fed-up Jeb Bush said at a meeting of the Hispanic Leadership Council during the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., this summer that Republicans “could persuade Latinos to our cause, if only we stop saying stupid things.”
But Rubio also said recently that the cause of resolving the status of undocumented young people is a “humanitarian one” and equated them to “refugees, because they’re here through no fault of their own.”
It makes sense to view immigration reform as a human rights issue, and one that should be seen through the lens of this country’s principles and values. But it is wrong to see it as only that. Because this is not just a political matter or a humanitarian one. Having an adequate set of immigration policies and working to integrate a vast segment of the population that has significantly benefited this nation and will continue to do so are nothing short of economic necessities. I am talking about the immigrants without papers, most of whom have been in the U.S. for 10, 15 or even 20 years, and have families, businesses and homes here.
In other words, it’s the economy, stupid.
The main problem that proponents of immigration reform faced over the last 18 years was that the issue was mostly seen as something to be wielded as an electoral tool, and not a policy that needed to make sense for the good of the nation. Current immigration policy has not advanced the interests of the United States for many years, in part because it has not responded to the needs of industries that have offered more jobs than could be filled by U.S. citizens. There was no flexibility in the number of work visas granted or people who could come here so it could be adjusted to match the demands of the economy at any particular point in our recent history. Rather than adapt those quotas and reform immigration laws to recognize reality, an “enforcement only” or “enforcement primarily” mentality took hold of the political mainstream. This started in 1994 with California’s Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that barred the state from providing most social services, including education, to undocumented immigrants. The measure was intended not as a real policy solution—and has obviously not been one—but as a way to exploit the immigration issue to win elections. And although Proposition 187 was effective for that short-term purpose—it helped Republican Gov. Pete Wilson win re-election in 1994—it destroyed his party’s long-term viability in California, and the GOP political brand became infected with the virus of nativism.
Eighteen years later, we can clearly see the consequences of making shortsighted use of immigration as a divisive wedge issue. None of the “solutions” offered since then have resulted in deterring unauthorized immigration, improving the economy or making sense of the system. Immigrating legally is essentially a nightmare that involves mountains of complex bureaucratic paperwork, thousands of dollars and, in many cases, years of waiting.
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