Details are finally emerging about how President Barack Obama plans to execute his illegal immigrant amnesty plan. He failed to pass his form of immigration reform when his party held the House and Senate during the first two years of his presidency, and now he is grasping at straws to define a legacy after his drubbing in the November 2014 mid-term elections. His plan is ethically troubling: U.S. presidents should not make a deal with lawbreakers.
Deserted by his party, Obama promises to do three things: send additional resources to the border, loosen restrictions on highly-skilled immigrants, and make a deal with illegal immigrants already in the U.S. The first is hot air; the second is smart, but will be resisted by his own party; and the latter is ethically troubling and probably illegal.
Illegal immigration brings to the forefront two problems. The first is the issue of assimilation. America is a spicy melting pot: the next generation of immigrant-citizens must accept the responsibility of what it means to be an American, from learning the language to paying taxes. America must have a common language for the marketplace and schoolhouse. Immigrants must also embrace our values, from individual liberty to the political equality of individual citizens (including women), to affirming a political order rooted in the Anglo-American legal and moral tradition.
The second issue has to do with law itself. Obama is right that today’s Washington has had this problem kicked down the road to it by yesteryear’s Washington. However, Obama’s approach is an amnesty, regardless of what he says. It is an amnesty because he did not call for a revision of U.S. law to close the loophole for foreigners to cross the border and have a baby that automatically becomes an American citizen. Until this bizarre state of affairs is changed, Congress should not support Obama’s plan.
What about opening up white-collar immigration? Republicans have long wanted to reduce the restrictions on high-tech immigrants because the U.S. trains these people in Silicon Valley and at elite universities and then sends them packing back to China and India. These are precisely the kind of guest workers and potential new American citizens we want! But Democrats have long opposed opening up this type of immigration because of their ties to labor unions. Maybe this one area of Obama’s plan will gain traction after some Democrats return home in December and Republicans take up majorities in both houses of Congress in January.
What about allowing illegal immigrants to “come out of the shadows?” Obama’s approach is unethical and legally problematic. The reason this is a terrible approach is found in the president’s language: “So, we are going to offer you the following deal…” He uses the word “deal” three times in this section of the speech, making it clear that he sees this as some sort of negotiated encounter. In other words, we have the Chief Law Enforcement Official of the U.S., who will not negotiate with the Mafia or terrorists, offering to cut a deal with hundreds of thousands of lawbreakers.
This is wrong.
One could argue, “deal” is just semantics, a trick of language. That is incorrect. “Deal” tells us that Obama is willing to break the law for political expediency. Instead of galvanizing his party to enact real immigration reform in the first two years of his presidency, and instead of being willing to work across the aisle on legitimate immigration reform, he is going to bypass the law and cut a deal with lawbreakers.
Moreover, Obama is being dishonest regarding possible solutions. It is simply not true that anyone who wants to come to the U.S. should be allowed to become a U.S. citizen, nor is it true that we did not have smart programs in the past to provide needed workers for U.S. low-skilled labor. The U.S. had a smart guest worker program (the “Bracero Program”) from World War II until 1964 that provided documented workers to U.S. agriculture. Again, it has been the Democratic Party, with its labor union allies, that has primarily been responsible for torpedoing guest worker programs.
What is to be done? Let’s move beyond the fantasy that this president will take border security seriously and focus on white-collar immigration and low-skilled labor.
First, the new Republican Congress should quickly pass a bill widely opening white-collar and highly-skilled immigration opportunities.
Second, it should send the president a bill authorizing a legitimate guest worker program that allows non-citizens to work in the U.S. with documentation, such as seasonal farm and construction workers in the Southwest.
Third, the Congress should pass two bills. From this date forward one would explicitly stop cross-the-border births by non-citizens resulting in American citizenship. This would be best as a Constitutional amendment. Then the GOP could pass legislation with extremely tight restrictions that would provide a path to citizenship for a very select group of people already living here—they start at the end of the immigration line but will not be deported immediately. They must pass the background check, pay their taxes, etc. Most of these people may never qualify for citizenship and thus they will either be documented guest workers or sent home. In this case, the fact that their children (illegally) became legal citizens due to birth circumstances should not play to their favor. They start at the end of the line but without fear of immediate deportation.
These two elements, stopping the birth-citizenship for non-citizens loophole and dealing with our existing social situation of millions of people living off the grid, must be intertwined.
Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is the Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University.
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