Still not the dream

President Obama’s announcement of an immigrant daydream dramatically changes the landscape for both the immigrants rights movement and its anti-immigrant counterpart.

Obama’s new policy, to forgo deportation proceedings for young people (under 31) who came to the United States before the age of 16, graduated from high school, and stayed out of legal trouble, and offering temporary work permits, is something substantially less than the DREAM Act that died in the Senate in 2010.  The new policy is not a law, and allows prosecutors discretion about what legal violations comprise serious (deportable) offenses.  It is silent on the fate of slightly older residents or of the families that house these young people.  The work permits are revocable, and the next president, even if it’s Obama, is not bound to continue deferring deportation proceedings.  Most significantly, there’s no pathway toward citizenship.  Although the new approach allows some young people to work, to drive, and to live openly with less danger, it does not afford them any access to influencing policy–ever.  (For some measured skepticism, see Citizen Orange.)

All this acknowledged, it’s a big step forward for advocates of a more humane approach to immigration reform.  And it changes the political prospects for movements and their allies on both sides of this issue.

For DREAMers and immigrant rights activists, this reform promises real improvements in the lives of up to an estimated 800,000 young people–and enough of a grievance to engage them in the political process.  Some had spent the past years organizing and agitating, some even disclosing their immigration status at great personal risk.  The risks diminished, some will work, others continue their studies, and probably more than a few will engage in the only kind of politics available to them, social movement activism.  Other Americans will see who these undocumented immigrants are–and perhaps how many they are.  As more young immigrants come out, their neighbors will get a better sense of their presence in American life.  There are, of course, social and political risks here, but familiarity is as likely to build acceptance.

Winning greater victories will be hard for the immigrant rights activists.  Obama implemented the pieces of the DREAM Act that he could work without Congress.  Older immigrants and those who came to the United States as adults represent a less attractive image for most Americans, and any move toward citizenship will require a very different Congress–and probably a different Republican Party.  Expect the ongoing development of a broader movement.

Also expect to see intensifying, but narrowing, opposition to immigration reform.  Comprehensive reform that includes recognition of the 12 million or so undocumented people already here is a divisive issue in the Republican Party.  Remember that it was not that long ago that Senator John McCain, working in concert with President George W. Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy, proposed immigration reform, only to be abandoned by the base of the Republican Party.  Seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2007, Sen. McCain learned the same lesson that all viable aspirants for the Republican nomination have learned since: a hard line against undocumented immigrants is a prerequisite for Republican primary victories.   How hard a line?  Can you recall Herman Cain’s musings on electrifying the fence separating the United States and Mexico?  (Just a joke, said Cain later.  Ha.)

Anti-immigrant activists can now watch their national leaders trying to find a way to sell them out.  Stalwarts in the campaign against any path toward citizenship or comprehensive reform are understandably outraged.  FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, emphasized the dangers it saw:

Thus, with a magic wand, President Obama has added 1.4 million workers to a job market that is already suffering from an unemployment rate of over 8 percent.   And this number does not take into account the additional number of illegal alien workers that will be added to the workforce through fraud.  The impact will be particularly severe on young Americans, as the unemployment rate for teenagers is 24.6 percent, and one in two recent college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed…Moreover, the scope of the Administration’s new amnesty program (one that is certainly not intended to provide only temporary relief) belies the Administration’s claim that it will grant deferred action to illegal aliens on a “case-by-case” basis.   The Obama Administration intends to abuse the process of deferred action to grant amnesty to an entire class of illegal aliens who will now compete with American workers…President Obama insisted his proposal was not amnesty or immunity, but a new policy that would “mend” the nation’s immigration system, make it “more fair, more efficient, and more just.”  The President offered no legal justification or grounding for his actions, most likely because he has already acknowledged that he has none.

FAIR then lists the disapproving comments of a number of Republican leaders, but they are all of second or third tier visibility.  What of Governor Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican standard-bearer in the presidential election?  Governor Romney criticized Obama for offering only a partial solution and for bypassing Congress, pointedly ignoring the fate of the DREAM Act in the last Congress.  He lamented that Obama’s action would preempt the bill that Senator Marco Rubio was considering writing and offering at some point in the future.  And he repeatedly refused to say whether he would reverse the policy if he were elected president.

Governor Romney, along with many others, criticized Obama for changing policy in response to political concerns.  (As we’ve said many times, movements change the political calculus of their targets).  Is this what democracy looks like.

If opponents of a humane immigration reform policy feel deserted by their leaders, well, that’s not a surprise.  It’s not just Romney who is trying to find a way to back away from a harsh stance against young undocumented immigrants (and Latino voters who might sympathize with their plight).  While FAIR has been covering the policy shift aggressively, other conservative groups have chosen not to do so.  A quick sample of the national sites of four major Tea Party groups (Tea Party Express, Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity, and FreedomWorks)  finds no mention of the new policy; you have to search aggressively to find positions on immigration altogether.  Although many of the Tea Partiers at the grassroots are incensed about the immigration issue generally, the national groups are sympathetic to less regulation and ready access to labor.  The national groups would prefer to talk about the issues on which national conservative activists agree with their grassroots base: taxes, health care reform, and getting Obama out of office.

President Obama’s shift on policy is already exacerbating a rift on the right that national groups had been working hard to paper over.   The president has made it a little harder for them to do so.  He has also posed a question for Mitt Romney that will come up again and again, one with no good political answer for the Republican candidate.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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