IS COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM ANY CLOSER NOW?

By Giacomo Behar
on November 23, 2012

Now that President Obama is about to start his second term, it appears that having lost the elections, the Republican Party is finally smarting up by setting aside the proposition that unauthorized immigrants are an "invading army of job stealers", "welfare moochers" and "criminals" whose only acceptable destiny is to be caught and deported -- in other words, the border fence forever, "amnesty" never.

It appears Republicans are suddenly re-discovering the merits of a working immigration system, for the first time since 2007. Senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who previously were brave enough to support bipartisan reform but were silenced during the last years of the Bush administration, are knocking on the door again, as if the last 5 years never happened.

All it took was an election in which millions of Latino voters -- many of them the wives and husbands, sons, daughters, grandchildren, cousins, co-workers and friends of those despised "illegals" -- overwhelmingly chose President Obama over the man who promised to be the Deporter in Chief. They rejected Mitt Romney by 3 to 1, according to exit polls. Asian-Americans did, too. Republicans looked at a demographically changing America, awoke to a bleak future of decline and irrelevance for the GOP, and concluded that immigrants aren't so bad after all.

This poses an opportunity, as well as a challenge for Mr. Obama, who promised to tackle immigration reform in his first term but did not. He is firmly on the hook to do so now. He says he will push reform early, and he looks well positioned to get something done. His allies in U.S. Congress need to step up and help.

There is still a long way to go before an immigration deal is struck, but the president and Congress can draw its outlines clearly and early, starting now. Any worthwhile reform must give 11 million undocumented immigrants a way to live within the law as American citizens. Mr. Obama's stopgap measure to protect young immigrants and students from deportation by a regulation similar to the Dream Act was sensible and necessary. But these Americans in-fact deserve the chance to become Americans on paper, too. So do their parents, and whoever else in the 11 million wishes to journey from "them" to "us." Republicans are floating schemes for temporary legal status for workers without a clear path to citizenship. Mr. Obama should make clear that basic equality demands more than that.

Meanwhile, he should be reforming the way his administration is carrying out current law -- starting with scaling back its arbitrary, self-imposed quota of 400,000 deportations a year. There is enforcement work to be done, like finding more effective ways to stifle illegal employment, but any strategy that fixates on deportations and the border is both foolish and ineffective. Illegal border crossings and apprehensions at the border have fallen to the lowest levels in decades. The unauthorized immigrants whom hard-liners want to keep out are already in the country. They are the workers and families Mr. Obama says he wants to integrate and assimilate, even as his current policies break those families apart. Mr. Obama's own Department of Homeland Security is a huge part of the problem, with its dangerous and widening use of state and local police officers as surrogate immigration enforcement agents. Its "Secure Communities" program has led to the mass deportations of minor offenders and even people with no criminal records.

The country needs a new approach to immigration enforcement, one that stops enlisting local police in its dragnet. The Obama administration should keep fighting efforts by states like Arizona and Alabama to set up their own immigration laws to abuse and deport the undocumented. And it should support states like Illinois and New York, which have been trying to reassert the proper separation between local police officers and federal immigration agents.

There will be challenges, of course. The hard-liners against reform -- including the white-culture alarmists and closet racists -- have not gone away. But the election did scare some of the immigration opportunists back onto the bipartisan bus.

Mr. Obama gained much when he allowed students who could benefit from the Dream Act a reprieve. Now he needs to think bigger and better, and look to the large constituency behind reform -- student activists, business groups, farmers, labor unions, Catholic bishops, evangelical churches, African-Americans, civil-liberties organizations and regular American citizens who support legalization -- to press the case. The arguments for reform over expulsion have always been smarter, saner and better for the rule of law, the preservation of families and the economy. Now that some of their opponents are softening their positions, Mr. Obama and U.S. Congress need to act.