Robinson: Politics foils any constructive debate on immigration

By Eugene Robinson, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 
photoEugene Robinson

Now that the immigration “crisis” has solved itself, this is the perfect time for Congress and the president to agree on a package of sensible, real-world reforms. It’s also the perfect time for pigs to grow wings.

Perhaps this week’s most significant news was a report from the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center showing that net migration from Mexico to the United States has slowed to a halt and may actually have reversed. There’s no longer the slightest excuse for histrionics about the alleged threat to our way of life from invading hordes intent on — shudder — working hard and raising their families.

Why the turnaround? The report cites “many factors, including the weakened U.S. job and housing construction markets, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings, the long-term decline in Mexico’s birth rates and broader economic conditions in Mexico.” To me, all of that makes perfect sense. Whether they have papers or not, immigrants are rational. As a general rule, they don’t come here to commit crimes. They come to work.

But the U.S. economy fell off a cliff, meaning there is less work to be had. Mexico’s economy, while not unscathed, is improving. And the Obama administration has dramatically stepped up border enforcement while carrying out a record number of deportations. Suddenly, both for Mexicans who considered immigrating legally and those who might have been tempted to come without documents, the risk-reward equation has changed.

Time for reasonable debate

According to the Pew report, there are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States; six out of 10 are Mexican. The number of immigrants without papers has actually been falling. Wouldn’t this be a perfect time to take a deep breath and start talking about reasonable ways to engineer a more rational immigration policy? Yes it would, but don’t hold your breath. Apparently, we’re going to have a lot of shouting without actually trying to find a solution. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of Arizona’s “driving while brown” law that instructs police to challenge and, if necessary, apprehend anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant. The law forbids racial profiling, but the truth is that it effectively guarantees profiling.

The administration argues that the state law usurps the federal government’s prerogative to set immigration policy. The court is expected to decide the case this summer, and the ruling’s impact may be less practical -- since illegal immigration, I repeat, is already on the decline -- than political.

Democrats will react with thunderous outrage if the court upholds the Arizona law -- but if you stand outside the back room where the pollsters and campaign strategists work, you might hear the slapping of high fives. Anything that draws attention to the Republican Party’s extremist position on immigration will only reinforce a tendency that Mitt Romney recently characterized as “doom” -- the headlong rush of Latino voters into a waiting Democratic embrace. Barack Obama won a remarkable two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008. This year, according to the polls, he’s running even stronger among the biggest minority group in the country. If Republicans don’t find a way to win more Latino support, Obama will be hard to beat.

So that is what this year’s immigration “debate” will be about: how to reap political gain and avoid political loss. What should our elected officials be talking about? I’d suggest they start with the obvious solution. We don’t need to build a giant wall along the Rio Grande; Obama has already “hardened” the border. We need a Reagan-style amnesty that would allow the great majority of undocumented immigrants to stay, along with reforms that give Mexicans and others a realistic hope of being able to come here someday.

Assuming they want to.