President Obama was better than usual, but not as good as he should have been, during a speech about immigration policy reform he gave in El Paso on Tuesday afternoon. (Text of speech .)
He correctly noted that the current immigration system is broken, that we train our own competition, break up families, and generally do ourselves no favors with the status quo. He also said — and I agree — that immigration reform is “an economic imperative.”
He gave better lip service than usual to the important point that illegals are illegal, and that people who broke the law to come here or stay here should not be rewarded, not least because of how unfair it is to people who wait years to do it the right way.
Being who he is, Obama couldn’t help but toss in a couple of jabs against the Republicans, stupidly making it far too transparent that his push on this issue is at least as much due to electoral politics as to actually caring about policy. Like the scorpion in the fable, it’s just his nature.
So why the big push now? Because Obama knows his support among white voters — at least outside of college-educated white women — has cratered (but not because of their color, mind you) and because he believes with good reason that even blacks won’t be as motivated to vote as they were in the “historic” 2008 election. After all, black turnout dropped from about 13% of voters in 2006, the last non-presidential election, to 10% in 2010 while overall voter turnout rose about 1%.
The president has also lost traction among Hispanics, not least due to the election of a few high-profile Hispanic Republicans such as Marco Rubio and New Mexico Governor Susan Martinez who while receiving a minority of the Hispanic vote nevertheless garnered far more support from that part of the electorate than had been predicted. Still, Hispanics are the biggest group that Barack Obama thinks he can and must work on when it comes to getting re-elected. After all, a recent Pew Hispanic Center report suggested that the nation’s fastest-growing minority group is lagging in election participation: “In 2010, 31.2% of Latino eligible voters say they voted, while nearly half (48.6%) of white eligible voters and 44.0% of black eligible voters said the same.”
Courting Hispanics is not a new idea for President Obama who in classic Progressive us-versus-them style encouraged Hispanics to vote in the 2010 elections by suggesting they think in terms of “We’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends.” It didn’t work then, and doesn’t seem much more likely to work now, but you can’t blame Obama for trying since he has few other places to turn for support.
THE ISSUE OF IMMIGRATION is a tough one for Republicans. Obama has a strong case to make when he suggests that many Republicans who claim to be for “comprehensive immigration reform” demanded “enforcement first” or “borders first.” With a raft of statistics about how enforcement is much stronger, how the border fence is “nearly complete,” how we now have 20,000 border patrol agents, Obama worried aloud about Republicans “mov(ing) the goal posts one more time.”
It’s a strong political argument, even if transparently cynical, and does pose some political risk to Republicans whose persistent “gender gap” (even now, women support Democrats by about 7 points more than men do) is due in part to appearing (and being characterized in the liberal media) as “mean” or “heartless.”
On the one hand, Republicans do not want to give Barack Obama a political victory on an issue as big as immigration going into the 2012 campaign. On the other hand, they don’t want to be accurately portrayed as the “party of ‘no'” on this issue, or as xenophobic.
Immigration has been a divisive issue within the GOP for more than a decade with the libertarian and free-market wing of the party supporting increasing immigration while nativists and economic know-nothings opposed it. A 1996 article by Steve Moore and Aaron Harris nicely summarizes the Republican Party’s historic schizophrenia over immigration but noting that since World War II the GOP “returned to its pro-legal immigration, anti-illegal immigration stance.”
The Republican Party Platform of 1960 should be a touchstone for today’s GOP on the issue of immigration, not least for its moral component:
Immigration has historically been a great factor in the growth of the United States, not only in numbers but in the enrichment of ideas that immigrants have brought with them. This Republican Administration has given refuge to over 32,000 victims of Communist tyranny from Hungary, ended needless delay in processing applications for naturalization, and has urged other enlightened legislation to liberalize existing restrictions.
Immigration has been reduced to the point where it does not provide the stimulus to growth that it should, nor are we fulfilling our obligation as a haven for the oppressed. Republican conscience and Republican policy require that:
The annual number of immigrants we accept be at least doubled.
Obsolete immigration laws be amended by abandoning the outdated 1920 census data as a base and substituting the 1960 census.
The guidelines of our immigration policy be based upon judgment of the individual merit of each applicant for admission and citizenship.
President Obama is right (as even a broken clock is on occasion) to point out the economic arguments. Population growth along with productivity gains are the only way to grow an economy. (Since government is essentially incapable of productivity gains as government workers, particularly in these days of powerful public sector unions, have at best no incentive and at worst negative incentive to be more productive, economic growth can’t be fueled by government.)
Republicans need to find a way to participate honestly in the discussion and to turn it into at worst a political neutral and perhaps even a winner. And here’s one suggestion: While making sure that any reform minimizes the moral hazard of rewarding lawbreaking, Republicans should support at least a moderate and ongoing annual increase in the number of visas available for legal workers, especially for high-skill jobs though lower skill levels should not be excluded. They should also create a work visa for the many seasonal and other low-skill workers who do not intend to become citizens. They should do this while including policies that minimize the ability of labor unions to force newly-legal workers into union ranks, which is the only reason that labor unions have gotten on board the “comprehensive reform” bandwagon.
The politics would be quite interesting if Republicans in the House said, “OK, we’ll go along with most of your suggested reforms if and only if the law includes a nationally-binding right-to-work provision so that no new immigrant — or any other citizen — can be required to pay union dues in order to work.” How many Democrats would then bail on their own president, if even he would consider such a provision (which I doubt)?
I REALIZE THAT it’s very difficult to get anywhere with immigration reform during economic hard times because people view new immigrants as competition for a job, and perhaps competition driving down wages (which is certainly true in some industries, though generally those are the lower-skill, lower-education industries). This means that it will not be as easy for Democrats to push hard for this as it would have been before the current recession. Sure, Obama can push it, but rust belt Democrats are not going to risk a primary challenge or general election loss by supporting a policy that brings new potential workers into this country.
As an aside, only a narcissist like Barack Obama would have missed the irony in his complaining that politics got in the way of his getting the DREAM Act passed. After all, everything this man has done for the past decade was primarily about politics despite the frosting put on the dirt cupcake to make us ignore the underlying bitterness, to get us to think he actually cares about what the issue appears superficially to be. And the DREAM Act failed to overcome a filibuster even when Democrats had sixty votes in the U.S. Senate. Again, like the scorpion of the fable, Obama offers pleasant sounding rhetoric about families and economics only to deliver the sting of blaming whatever it was that that he didn’t get — much in the way my 3-year old might — on those mean ol’ Republicans.
Once you get above the lowest-skill or lowest-education level of the work force, the best studies I’ve seen suggest that immigration is a clear economic benefit. The people who argue otherwise mistakenly assume that the economic pie is of fixed size and all that the economy and government do is figure out how to slice it up. In fact, the pie grows more often than not, with the speed of growth largely a function of how pro-growth economic policy, including tax policy, is.
And that brings me to my final point: Barack Obama talked about how 25% of startups in recent years were started by immigrants, and how they created 200,000 jobs during that unspecified time frame. Obama talked about the importance of economic growth and how immigration reform can help, indeed how it must be part of our growth. But the fact is that Obama’s own policies, not least Obamacare but also the incredible burden on and strong-arming of business by government (witness the NLRB complaint against Boeing or the incredible action taken by Kathleen Sibelius against the CEO of Forest Labs), makes it far less attractive to set up a business in America. After all, if you become successful, you’re likely to be punished unless you’re in lockstep with the domineering, statist views of this Administration.
In El Paso, like that broken clock, President Obama was right that immigration reform is an economic (and perhaps moral) imperative. But also like the broken clock, he was wrong about almost everything else.
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