Candidate Barack Obama promised immigration activists, "It's time for a president who won't walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform when it becomes politically unpopular." Now they're demanding he come through.
In response, the administration may trump the health-care debate with another divisive issue — "comprehensive reform" on immigration — that is surely just as "politically unpopular." After the failure of the polarizing cap-and-trade bill, and the current blood-on-the-floor fight over "comprehensive health-care reform," tackling illegal immigration now would be a political nightmare.
Activists at next week's planned immigration "reform" rally in Washington, D.C., may use euphemisms like "comprehensive immigration reform" or stage demonstrations about "immigrant rights." But most Americans have few problems with immigration per se — as long as it is legal and in numbers that facilitate assimilation and integration into American life.
Let us be honest for once on this issue. The problem is almost exclusively one of illegal immigration — namely, the until-recent unlawful entry of from half-a-million to 1 million new arrivals annually, mostly from Mexico and Latin America, that resulted in the current 11 to 15 million illegal immigrants now living here in the shadows.
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Wiser counsel would insist on quietly continuing to close the border through increased security, employer sanctions, the use of tamper-proof I.D.s, and completion of the border fence. Without massive new influxes of illegal immigrants, society gains time to debate hot-button issues like guest-worker programs, amnesty and deportation.
In the interim, the illegal community would become static — and far more rapidly integrate, assimilate, intermarry or return home. But even as the number of illegal arrivals temporarily lessens due to stricter enforcement and the recession, the impatience of uncompromising activists increases — especially calls for amnesty as a reward for Latino bloc support in the 2008 election.
If the administration is foolish enough to go along with their demands for a blanket amnesty, President Obama might gain probable new registered voters, but it would be a political disaster that dwarfs the failed Bush administration attempt at addressing illegal immigration.
Bush, remember, was a conservative who tried both to work with Democrats and finesse his suspicious right-wing base into supporting a Republican- sponsored plan. And he failed when foes equated his earned- citizenship proposals as euphemisms for amnesty. But as a liberal with close ties to pressure groups like the National Council of La Raza, Obama won't have nearly that bipartisan advantage — especially coming off a polarizing health-care debate.
In addition, the economy is still stagnant. The old argument that cheap laborers do the work Americans won't is dated. Unemployed Americans might be more willing to hammer shingles, wait tables or mow lawns now. And you can bet they are less willing to pay out unemployment, welfare and food subsidies for those who are neither lawful nor always fully employed.
More importantly, violence-torn Mexico is constantly in the news. Members of drug cartels butcher each other, the innocent, the Mexican police — and Americans. Much of the frightening violence — far worse today than in Iraq — is right on the border. Sometimes it spills over, convincing most Americans to keep the border more, rather than less, concrete.
If next week's protests turn out like some past May Day rallies — when chanting demonstrators waved the flags of nations that illegal aliens do not wish to return to while criticizing the country they most certainly wanted to remain in — it will only further turn off the public.
So is yet another partisan fight over "comprehensive reform" an Obama effort to solve pressing problems, or, perhaps, more about creating bigger and permanent political constituencies?
E-mail Hanson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES