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Obama: Do the Right Thing

Lisa García Bedolla, chancellor's professor, education and political science, and director of the Institute of Governmental Studies | November 19, 2014

Providing administrative relief for at least six million of the unauthorized immigrants currently in the United States is the right thing for President Obama to do for the country and, most importantly, for the hard-working human beings who have been used as pawns in the immigration debate for far too long.

U.S. history is replete with examples where investing in our immigrants has paid off. In the 19th century, the Democratic Party, in need of supporters in northern elections, allied with newly arrived Irish and Italian immigrants, facilitating their naturalization and integration into U.S. social, economic, and political life.

These immigrants are often referred to today as an example of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.” Nothing could be further from the truth. There were a myriad of ways that these immigrants received formal and informal government assistance. That assistance made a huge difference in their subsequent success, to the benefit of the entire nation.

More recently, the U.S. government provided Cuban immigrants with special status in terms of immigration policy and invested over $4 billion to support their settlement in the United States. The Cuban-origin community in Florida is often cited as another example of hardworking immigrants achieving the American Dream. Like the Irish and Italians before them, it is true these immigrants worked hard. It is also true that they received critical financial and policy assistance.

The lesson to learn from these examples is not that these immigrants were some kind of burden on the state. Rather, that a small investment in immigrant communities results in huge payoffs for the country as a whole.

Tragically, U.S. immigration policy has become more draconian and punitive over time. In the current climate, there is no chance that the U.S. government would offer any group of immigrants the type of support Cubans received when fleeing Fidel Castro. One need only look at how we have treated the unaccompanied Central American children arriving in the United States. That any commentator could talk about children as “invaders” (as Jim Gilchrist did) is morally incomprehensible. That the Obama Administration has done so little to address the extreme desperation in their home countries that led to their exodus, or to resolve their cases quickly and justly once here, shows how legal status now has an inverse relationship with a person’s humanity. In this case, children so full of fear and desperation that they left their families and risked all for an uncertain future in the United States have been treated with suspicion and bureaucratic red tape rather than the warmth and care that all children deserve.

Yet little of the debate considers immigrants’ needs or their humanity. Instead, most of the commentary about immigration reform since the midterm election has focused on whether or not providing administrative relief will hurt or help the Democrats politically. There is no doubt that Obama breaking his promise to act on immigration before the election hurt the Democrats.

Latinos know that the Obama Administration has continually promised to act on immigration while deporting over 2 million people – more than any other administration in U.S. history. They also know that his policy on enforcement, like his decision to delay administrative action, reflects a cynical political calculus that sees Latinos as a captured constituency. Not surprisingly, Latino voters stayed home on Election Day and many Democratic incumbents paid the price.

The reality is that neither party is doing the right thing on immigration. Both Republicans and Democrats are engaging in hostile and hateful rhetoric about our nation’s immigrants, refusing to acknowledge the harm being done to millions of human beings, including U.S. citizens. I am heartened by the fact that Obama seems willing to act and finally keep his promise. Such an act will renew many Latinos’ faith in our government and no doubt will significantly increase their turnout in favor of Democratic candidates in 2016.

If Republicans were smart, they would act on immigration as well. By continuing to obstruct action, they risk following in the footsteps of Republicans in California, who, after benefiting in the short term from the divisiveness of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, launched a political sea change that makes it nearly impossible for any Republican candidate to win statewide office. It seems the national Republican establishment has not learned that lesson.

We must not forget that Congress and Obama’s inaction has resulted in tremendous human hardship. This is not about political positioning. It is about the hard-working human beings who strive every day to live with dignity, put food on the table, and provide their children with hope for the future. We cannot forget the millions of children who live in constant terror that their parents will be deported, and the tens of thousands of children for whom that fear has become a reality.

The stakes could not be higher. Not for Obama and the Republicans, but for these families. This is not a time for strategy and cynical politics. This is one of those rare instances where the moral action is completely consonant with our country’s self interest. It is time for the United States to invest in its immigrants as it has time and again.

We need to see that these highly motivated, daring individuals, like the immigrants of the past, are our future. President Obama can help us embrace that future by doing the right thing.

Comments to “Obama: Do the Right Thing

  1. Prof. García Bedolla, what Mr. Standard’s comment proves is that if UC professors and scholars continue to fail to join together to create a movement to save American Democracy and an acceptable quality of life for our newest generations, then the future shall become unacceptable in this century from our failure to protect democracy, our failure to eliminate violence against women and children, our failure to eliminate inequalities, our failure to prevent further out of control global warming from destroying an acceptable quality of life, our failure to follow the Golden Rule, etc.

  2. I could not disagree more. This is not a matter of Republicans not valuing immigrants. Although eloquent, the article is simply beside the point. Nations without borders and control over immigration is not a nation. This problem we face is self induced only because we do not control the border, not because there is some cosmic right for Mexicans and other Latin Americans to cross over and live and work in the United States. No such right exists for Americans in any of these countries. In fact, Mexico swiftly deports Central Americans caught in the country.

    Welcoming legal immigrants that enter our country legally is our tradition, not welcoming illegal immigrants. Moreover, the entry of low skilled labor simply depresses wages for the most vulnerable Americans in our country that are already struggling greatly to make ends meet. How about some compassion for them>

    Most of the great and sympathetic in fact do not realize that Caesar Chavez was dead against illegal immigrants from Mexico. He organized and fought against it- even organizing informants across the border to inform on illegal immigrants taht he called ‘wetbacks’. Why? Because he was a union man- he knew rightly that trying to organize for a living wage and better standards for farm workers- legal immigrants and Mexican Americans – was impossible with an endless flow of cheap, illegal labor from a poor country.

    This article and all the impassioned speeches ignore this fact and moreover ignore the simple fact that we must have the rule of law in our country and control of our border. All the rest is fundamentally beside the point.

  3. A most excellent and timely post Prof. García Bedolla, thank you very much.

    I strongly urge you, Kim Thuy Seelinger, Robert Reich and Dan Farber to join together to create a movement of UC professors and scholars to save American Democracy, and the human race.

    Your statement: “Both Republicans and Democrats are engaging in hostile and hateful rhetoric about our nation’s immigrants, refusing to acknowledge the harm being done to millions of human beings, including U.S. citizens” proves that the creation of such a movement, especially after the failure of the majority of eligible voters to vote in the last election, is absolutely imperative at this time.

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