But the President’s executive order actually was tepid compared to what he could have done. It includes no path to citizenship and would offer advantages to far less than half of undocumented immigrants. Moreover, although estimates abound that this could benefit more than four million immigrants, the actual number who take advantage of the policy may be less than half of that number. Qualified immigrants will weigh the promise of a work permit and temporary freedom from deportation against the perceived risks of surrendering personal information to authorities and subjecting themselves to broader taxation -- all in the context of a certain change in administrations in two years. Given inevitable anxiety among the undocumented population, many won’t sign up. Clearly some will benefit, but the actual impact on the American economy and society is likely to be minimal.
The Obama executive order is far more than a symbolic gesture, but it doesn’t come close to addressing the underlying immigration policy issues that have sown distrust in many communities and prevented our country from fully benefitting from the labor and taxes of productive workers with well-established roles in our economy. The inevitable political and social fallout in the wake of the Obama immigration order make it more urgent, not less, to find a way to a bipartisan compromise on immigration reform. As Senator Lugar said in his last speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate on December 12, 2012: “No attempt to gain the maximum strategic advantage from our human resource potential should fail to enact comprehensive immigration reform that resolves the status of undocumented immigrants and encourages the most talented immigrants to contribute to America’s future.”
Let’s go back to the basic question of national immigration policy absent the political histrionics. The issue can be summed up in two sets of questions: how do we bring undocumented workers out of the shadows to improve the labor supply, capture more taxes, make the job of law enforcement easier, and respond compassionately to human beings who are separated from family members? And how do we secure the border, discourage future illegal immigration, maintain fairness to immigrants who played by the rules, and reassure American citizens that a path to legality won’t hurt the U.S. economy or budget?
These are not mutually exclusive goals. Congress does face issues – such as abortion -- where the response of each member’s conscience or worldview affords policy negotiations only at the outer margins of the issue. But immigration is not one of these. It is, and always has been, a negotiable issue when policy is raised above the pressures of politics. Obviously, that won’t be easy. Democrats and Republicans are both positioning for votes that will hinge on this debate. Both parties will be wary of crossing their base supporters.
President Obama should not give up on passage of an immigration bill during the next two years, even if Republican outrage initially makes compromise appear impossible. But he also must be willing to play for the long run. How he addresses the issue from here on may well determine if an immigration bill has a chance for passage under the next President. He should start by engaging the Republican opposition in meaningful ways. In a perfect world, he would invite lawmakers of both parties for a series of events that take stock of the main issues in the debate (both pro and con). One can imagine a trip to the Southwest border, a retreat with business leaders, and meetings with law enforcement officials and Dreamers, for example. The goal should be to put a human face on the issue and refocus the debate on immigration policy.
Immigration reform involves not just a legal change, but also a societal one. Opposition to immigration is stoked by resentment and fear. The President and Republicans who understand that current policy must change should foster a debate that enhances respect for immigrants and improves understanding of the relationship between immigration reform and a strong economy. The President should work to ensure that the trend line of support for immigration reform moves upward regardless of the fate of any bill.
Dan Diller is the Director of Policy at The Lugar Center.