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.