One of the legacies of the Obama presidency will be that Barack Obama did not shy away from controversial challenges. Unfortunately for the president, that has committed him to a series of thankless tasks, from trying to end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to instituting health care reform.
Now comes immigration. Congress, including the members of both parties, has long treated immigration reform as a political hot potato. When the subject of changing immigration laws comes up, as it did under President George W. Bush, moderate ideas are rebuffed. Some unions object, but the loudest protests come from nativists posing as job protectors. Those implacable opponents, now a key part of the tea party movement, represent a minority of Americans, but their vociferousness apparently frightens mainstream Republicans.
So now House Speaker John Boehner, who absent the tea party might be inclined to make deals with the White House, has told President Obama his chamber won't be discussing immigration reform this year. The president says he will try to put some reforms in place through executive orders. The urgency of the situation has intensified, with some 40,000 minors from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala having been apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol officials since last fall. Most minors from Mexico are sent home. This is a serious and increasing problem, complicated by the fact that those countries have problems with drugs, gang wars and killings. Simply sending children back could send them into danger. Obama is seeking $3.7 billion from Congress to tighten security and help these youngsters.
There are approximately 11 million people in this country illegally. Those who came as children had no say in the matter. The children born here to undocumented immigrants are in a hopeless quandary, as their parents need to stay under the radar or face deportation. The conundrum for some Republicans is that they must avoid provoking tea party members on immigration, but they must also respond to their American business supporters who rely heavily on immigrant workers. That dependence is particularly strong in agribusiness, and in many places authorities have been winking at reality for years.
A calm debate might result in reasonable reform. An immigration agreement could provide a way for those in the country illegally to gain legal work status and a path to citizenship with appropriately rigorous requirements; a permanent solution for the children of these immigrants to ensure them an opportunity for education; strict requirements that those with criminal records leave the country for good and border security that is consistent and just.
There are reasonable ideas on immigration reform that would protect our borders and deal realistically with those who are here now, many of whom have been productively working in the United States for years. The truth is, Boehner gave something away in criticizing the president's reasonable decision to allow some children of those immigrants here illegally to stay for two years under clear conditions: If they were law-abiding, had served in the military or had high school diplomas or equivalents, they could get work visas. Boehner said that causes more border problems and predicted anything Obama did would worsen the situation.
Republicans in the lower chamber have made it clear almost from the start of the Obama presidency that they don't intend to work with the president on anything, period. Obama, on immigration, has no choice but to go it alone. At least he will be going somewhere on an issue that needs to be addressed.
-- The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)