Brighter prospects for immigration reform rose sharply following the November presidential election, and understandably so.
Despite his vigorous, record-breaking efforts to shut down illegal immigration on the southern border, President Obama's empathy for immigration reform won overwhelming electoral support from the nation's legal immigrants, an essential voting bloc for turning the tight election in his favor.
Republicans, whose noisy right wing had embraced the unprecedented harsh tactics of Arizona and Alabama extremists to drive out their needed but undocumented immigrants, suddenly realized they had shot themselves in the foot by denying the reality of the nation's nation rapidly changing electoral demography. Their studied promise, on the heels of their defeat, to collaborate on reasonable immigration reforms has since set the stage for a long-sought overhaul of immigration rules, a matter which traditionally had been a bipartisan concern until the tea party stole the GOP compass.
Now both parties are quietly at work on an immigration reform plan, at least in the Senate. The key Republican committee chairs in the House leadership are another matter. Both the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the new chairman of the immigration subcommittee, hold hard-line views on immigration reform.
Republicans are in a pickle both ways. They cannot credibly maintain that President Obama's policies on stanching the flow of undocumented aliens have been anything but robust. In fact, his policies have been criticized by advocates of looser rules precisely because they have been far more effective (and costly as well) than those of any of his predecessors in the White House.
A study released last Monday by the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan group that focuses on global immigration issues, gives some of the vital details. In the 2012 budget year, for example, the Obama administration spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement programs under the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) department, and the US-Visit program. That's $3.6 billion above the combined spending of the FBI, the Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency.
The administration's commitment to border security is now recognized as "the most determined," most expensive and deepest commitment of any nation in the world, a Migration Policy Institute spokesman said. Obama's administration has set three significant records in immigration control: ICE border control agents arrested a record 327,000 undocumented immigrants attempting the cross the southern border in 2011. The Homeland Security Department removed a record 410,000 illegal immigrants from around the country in 2012. And the administration, by 2012, had stationed a record number of Border Patrol agents on the nation's borders.
Obama's efforts, far surpassing those of former President George W. Bush, have targeted both illegal workers and Americans employers who exploit immigrants for cheap labor and routinely ignore rules requiring viable scrutiny of workers' documentation and legal status. His policies have also targeted removal of undocumented immigrants who have a criminal record or are arrested for crimes. And they have tightened control of temporary visas, which have become the easiest way to enter the country and remain illegally.
What sets Obama's administration apart is his understanding of the nation's economic need to provide legal status, dignity and a earned path to citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Most of these people already participate in American communities as responsible, hard-working, family-oriented members of our social, civic and economic infrastructure.
Obama was correct also to issue an executive order last year to institute the provisions of the DREAM Act that Republicans have twice refused to pass. That order allows young people who were brought to the United States as children and without a visa, and who have grown up essentially as Americans, to qualify for application for citizenship if their school, community, work and military service records show them to be good potential citizens.
Obama has shown that a balanced program on immigration control can work at both ends of the spectrum to provide border security and reasoned growth in immigration. Putting a more comprehensive immigration program in place, with humane respect for undocumented immigrants who have enriched our nation in myriad ways, remains a proper goal. It's time for Republicans to step up and affirm that path.