A Step Forward on Immigration

Few issues put the conservative disconnect with reality into as high relief as the immigration crisis. Conservative “plans” range, by analogy, from building a ladder to the moon, to rowing a boat to the moon instead. There are more than 11 million people currently residing in the US illegally. The resources to find, hold, process and deport that number of people do not exist. Nor should anyone of sound mind want to live in a country with a police force so powerful that it could round up roughly 4% of its population, with a commensurately enormous prison apparatus. Consider that all local and federal police have thus far been able to push the US prison population to 2 million, giving the US the highest incarceration rate in the world. Immigration enforcement, with perhaps one-tenth the manpower, cannot begin to round up more than five times that number of people.

The immigration crisis cannot be resolved by the police. This is the point of departure for all reality-based approaches toward easing or resolving US immigration issues – President Obama said as much in his speech Thursday night. The few conservatives who seem to grasp this reality sometimes advocate for a self-deportation fantasy instead, in which the US makes existence so difficult for its undocumented aliens, that they give up on life in America, pick up and leave. The problem with that plan is that self-deportation on such a scale has never occurred in a western country during peacetime in history.

The not-so-wise and way-too-cynical yet insist that “the laws be enforced as written.” However given the disparity between the large number of undocumented aliens and the paucity of resources available to immigration enforcement, the laws can only be enforced selectively – a fact Obama also noted in his speech. Once one recognizes that resource constraints compel law enforcement to narrow its focus, the rest of the president’s plan is common sense. Immigration enforcement should, of course, be directed at “felons, not families; criminals, not children.”

And once the decision has been made to not pursue immigration enforcement against US residents who satisfy certain criteria, it is prudent to take the next step and normalize their legal status. America’s undocumented resident population is woven into the fabric of businesses and communities nationwide. The threat of immigration enforcement is a disruptive force, thwarting market efficiency, frustrating the work of ordinary law enforcement, and undermining families, among other ills. By creating a track by which undocumented aliens can obtain work permits, the president’s new policy ushers them out of the shadows, freeing them to work, go to school, find better jobs, and organize their lives to take best advantage of their individual talents and energies. This will only increase their contribution to American society, and enrich us all.

The president’s plan is, in some respects, quite modest. More than 60% of the America’s illegal immigrants have been in the country for more than 10 years. And yet Obama’s executive orders do not grant work permits or relief from the threat of deportation based on tenure within the US alone. To be covered under the revised policy, unless brought to the US as a child, an undocumented immigrant must be a parent of either a US citizen or a permanent resident. And so even after these executive orders, the status quo will hold for some 5 million people, who will remain in the US illegally, living in the shadows, without a track toward normalization.

Tailoring limited immigration enforcement resources to achieve the greatest good is about practicality. Amnesty for people brought into the US as children, for whom the US is their true home, is about justice. Work permits and freedom from the threat of deportation for the parents of US citizens and green-card holders, who have been living and working in our midst for years, is about decency. Elaborating, at long last, a plan that begins to resolve America’s ongoing immigration crisis – it’s about time.


Editor’s note: Chestnuts, yams and flightless fowl beware: the Liberal Field Guide is off for the rest of the week. We’ll be back with new material next week – better fed if not better rested.




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