More illegal immigrants have been deported under President Barack Obama’s administration than during any other three-year period in the nation’s history. Obama has also devoted more resources to “securing the border” than any of his predecessors. At the same time—and partly as a result—illegal immigration from Mexico has virtually stopped, a fact neither the president’s critics nor his supporters like to mention. Can Obama claim credit for this dramatic change? Not entirely. Certainly border surveillance and more rigorous enforcement of immigration laws have played a role. Most of the credit, however, must go to the recession, which has destroyed millions of jobs once eagerly sought by undocumented workers. Meanwhile, Mexico’s improving economy has reduced incentives to make the dangerous trip north.

There have been other surprising changes in the immigration picture. According to Jorge G. Castañeda and Douglas S. Massey (“Do-It-Yourself Immigration Reform,” the New York Times, June 1), the influx of legal temporary workers and those on business visas from Mexico has increased dramatically. So has the number of Mexicans who have become naturalized American citizens. With citizenship papers in hand, they can be legally reunited with their spouses and children. To a remarkable extent, illegal immigration is no longer a problem. What to do with the 11 million undocumented aliens who remain in the United States is the difficult question.

Enter Obama, stage left. In a surprise announcement last month, the president issued an executive order lifting the threat of deportation from eight hundred thousand illegal immigrants. Those reprieved must have been brought to the United States before the age of sixteen, be under the age of thirty-one, and have been here for at least five years. These young people must also be high-school students or graduates or have been honorably discharged from the military. In announcing his new policy, Obama emphasized that those affected are not responsible for their illegal status and do not deserve to be treated like criminals or uprooted from the only country they’ve known. “They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” he said.

Obama readily conceded that his order is a stopgap measure, and called on Congress to revisit the Dream Act, which would create a path to citizenship for all illegal immigrants brought here as children. Originally a bipartisan bill, the act was rejected by Republicans when Obama pushed for its passage. In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, Obama explained, it was incumbent on him as a matter of fairness to at least take this administrative step. The Department of Homeland Security, Obama said, will focus its limited resources on far more serious threats to the nation’s security. Republicans are now complaining that Obama’s order makes permanent immigration reform more difficult—an ungrounded assertion intended to obscure the fact that most Republican lawmakers still want nothing to do with real reform.

Politics undoubtedly played a role in Obama’s decision. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, staked out an extreme anti-illegal-immigrant position when debating his opponents in the primaries. It is not easy to get to the right of Newt Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry, but Romney did, endorsing the draconian Arizona immigration law (most of which the Supreme Court has just ruled unconstitutional) and promising to veto the Dream Act should he become president. His “solution” is to make things so difficult for undocumented workers that they will “self-deport.”

Most Americans think it is undesirable or even impossible to deport 11 million people. At some point, a path to citizenship will have to be made available. Since Obama issued the executive order, Romney has refused to say whether he would rescind it should he become president. Caught between the rabid anti-immigrant views of the Republican base and the large presence of Hispanic voters in crucial swing states such as Florida and Colorado, Romney is loath to clarify his stand. Clearly, Obama knew his decision would put Romney in a difficult position. At the same time, few question Obama’s convictions on immigration. He has worked to secure the border and now wants to assimilate those who are already here illegally but are otherwise law-abiding. Romney’s fervent faith in capitalism and American exceptionalism is clear enough, but many voters still can’t figure out what he believes about divisive issues such as immigration. At some point, Romney will have to give up on placating voters who want him to demonize “illegals” and start talking straight about the reality of immigration and the possibility of progress toward citizenship for the undocumented under a Republican administration.

June 26, 2012

Published in the 2012-07-13 issue: 
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