Obama, immigration and “anchor babies”
After breaking a promise to tackle immigration reform in his first year in office, President Barack Obama now thinks the time has come to deal with the thorny issue “once and for all.” It’s a safe bet that he will fail to repair America’s broken immigration system. Why? George W. Bush helps explain.
The immigration reform Bush championed would have provided tighter control over the 2,000-mile border with Mexico, a new visa system for temporary workers, and a path to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants already in the country. The bill failed in 2007 after running into stiff opposition from congressional leaders of his own Republican party.
In his memoir, Decision Points, he says the debate over the reform had been affected by “a blend of isolationism, protectionism and nativism,” apocalyptic warnings of a “third world invasion and conquest of America” by TV radio hosts and commentators and last but not least the influence of ideological extremes in Congress.
“The failure of immigration reform points out larger concerns about the direction of our politics,” Bush writes in a perceptive passage. Since members of Congress in safe districts do not have to worry about challenges from the opposition party, their greatest vulnerability is getting outflanked in their own party. The result is a drift towards the extreme, he writes, and “this is especially true in the era of bloggers, who make national targets out of politicians they deem ideologically impure.”
That trend was obvious in the 2010 mid-term elections that gave Republicans a 49-seat majority in the House of Representatives and brought in many extremely vocal guardians of ideological purity, adherents to the populist tea party movement.
It is not a congress with an appetite for fixing what Obama, like his predecessor, has described as a broken immigration system. And the obstacles for him are even bigger than they were for Bush. Isolationism, protectionism and nativism are still running strong in the debate. The talk radio hosts and TV commentators Bush complains about in his book treated him, a fellow Republican, much more gently than they do Obama, whom they tend to portray as the devil incarnate.
So Obama’s remark, in his State of the Union address on January 25, that the debate “will be difficult and take time” sounds like the understatement of the year. Particularly because it came just a few weeks after anti-immigration hard-liners added a new element to the long-running political battle.
ANCHOR BABIES” AND THE CONSTITUTION
That involves a constitutional amendment, dating back to 1868, providing U.S. citizenship to almost all babies born in the United States. (The children of foreign diplomats are excluded). In the terminology of proponents of tighter immigration rules, children born to illegal immigrants are “anchor babies,” meant to ensure legal status for their parents and prevent their deportation.
The phrase adds a toxic element to the immigration debate but it is misleading. Until such children reach the age of 21, they cannot sponsor their parents for legal immigration status. That has not stopped an anti-anchor baby movement from gathering momentum.
Two days after Obama’s “once and for all” remark, two Republican senators, Rand Paul and David Vitter, introduced legislation that would end the right to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants born in the U.S.
A day earlier, Arizona Republicans filed similar legislation, part of a coordinated drive in several U.S. states to highlight claims that the federal government is not doing enough to curb illegal immigration.
The aim is to fuel debate over the 14th amendment of the U.S. constitution which guarantees citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” Interpreting the second half of that sentence will boost the income of lawyers but do little to repair the immigration system.
The key to doing that is what Bush pursued and Obama echoed in his State of the Union speech: a way to “protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows.”
There are at least 11 million of them and to the ideological purists, any proposal to give them a path to legal status is tantamount to “amnesty,” like “anchor babies” one of the terms that touch emotional buttons and tend to drown practical considerations. Common sense would dictate that border security, an out-of-date visa system and the status of millions of people already in the country must be dealt with simultaneously and in one package.
But for long, leading Republicans have insisted on a sequence – first, there must be full “operational control” over the border, defined by law as “the prevention of all unlawful U.S. entries, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics and other contraband.”
The ambitious, or elusive, nature of that requirement was best described by Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano when she was governor of Arizona: “Show me a 50-foot wall and I will show you a 51-foot ladder.”
And the solution? None in sight. If Obama has a plan on how to solve the problem, he has yet to spell it out clearly.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)