photo by Valerie Hinojosa
Someday in the near future, when 4 million to 5 million immigrants illegally residing in the United States have temporary permission from a lame-duck president to live and work openly, what will really have changed?
These people are here anyway, and most are already working in the shadowy corners of our economy. They don’t have government organized health care now, and they won’t have it later either, because President Obama excluded them from it for political reasons. The only real difference is that, for the time being, these people do not need to live in fear that they will be torn from their families, including their American citizen children, and they will have more mobility in the labor force.
This mobility, by the way, will in many cases include the privilege of being immediately fired when workers acknowledge having previously lied to their current employers about their immigration status. National origin is not a legal basis for firing someone in this country, but lying on an employment application is. Many employment lawyers have cautioned companies that it is important to consistently enforce their disciplinary policies for lying in an application, meaning that even if companies wanted to keep these workers, they might not be able to do so without opening themselves to liability. By authorizing immigrants without the proper documentation to work, Obama may get thousands of them promptly fired.
Setting aside the question of whether he overstepped his legal powers, the steps the president announced last month are practical and humane. Even though his administration has deported millions since he took office, as Obama himself noted, there is no way we can round up all of the immigrants living in the country illegally and send them home. “[…] tracking down, rounding up and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you,” the president said in his televised address on November 20.
Republicans are predictably outraged that the president, as is his wont, took the law into his own hands and did what he has long said he lacked the power to do for transparently political purposes. But then, practically everything that happens in Washington happens for political purposes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in a democracy. The Republican response, too, will be crafted for political purposes.
So for the GOP, the question is how to respond. Republicans have made it perfectly clear that they are against what Obama did on immigration. The American electorate is waiting to see what they are for instead.
Thoughtful Republicans already know that simply demanding ever higher and longer walls on our southern border is not enough to constitute a policy. When the party gets around to reconciling immigration with its core principles, the GOP has an excellent chance to turn immigration policy against the president and his fellow Democrats.
The Republican Party, after all, is the party that purports to favor free movement of capital, which should include human capital, and it exalts individual initiative and entrepreneurship. The GOP is the natural home of people who want to better the lives of their families through their own efforts, rather than through government benefits. This description fits to a tee the people who are literally dying to come to this country from elsewhere in this hemisphere, and beyond.
We can’t blame Hispanic Americans for preferring even an imperfect something, offered by the Democrats, to the Republicans’ nothing. Latino support for the president’s action is predictably high. But if the Republicans offer any option beyond more deportations and higher walls, their efforts to reach Latino voters might actually bear fruit.
When Republicans, probably under the political cover of family unification that Obama himself invoked, eventually embrace this free movement, perhaps they will couple their calls for tougher border controls with demands that the country welcome people who want to build it up as they build their lives here. Maybe they will also steer such people toward the many communities that desperately need their initiative. When and if these things happen, immigrant populations, and especially Latinos, are apt to embrace the GOP as their natural political and cultural home.
A few far-sighted Republicans already know this. In the near term, the hard work ahead of them is to persuade the rest of their party.
In the meantime, not much will have changed under Obama’s order, other than that some people will be able to sleep a lot easier at night.