- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 31, 2009

Immigration activists and Hispanic groups are demanding that President Obama deliver on his promised comprehensive package of immigration reform.

Already, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, has derided federal sweeps of illegal immigrants as “un-American.” And recently the Obama administration stripped the federal authority of Arizona’s controversial Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio, to make immigration arrests.

Yet expect the public to oppose any so-called comprehensive immigration reform even more vehemently than it did President George W. Bush’s 2007 doomed proposals.

Why?

Conditions on the ground have changed drastically in the past two years.

First, the nation’s unemployment is now over 9 percent. It may peak beyond 10 percent. In many Western states, such as California, the jobless rate may climb even higher.

The old notion that “illegal immigrants pick the lettuce that Americans refuse to” is an ossified stereotype. In fact, today fewer than 1 out of 20 illegal immigrants currently do farm labor. Most are engaged in construction or the service industry, or are homemakers with child-care responsibilities. While plenty of unemployed American citizens may still not yet wish to pick oranges, the jobless might consider taking jobs like hammering nails or working in restaurants.

Second, many states are broke. Taxes are rising. The public is questioning all sorts of government entitlement expenditures. In California, the latest budget crisis saw a $26 billion shortfall - at a time when some studies put the state’s net health, housing, education and criminal justice costs for some 3 million illegal immigrants at over $10 billion a year.

Yet illegal immigrants who receive government help somehow can send money back home to Mexico.

Of the 11-12 million illegal immigrants believed to be residing in the United States, well over half are thought to be Mexican nationals. Each immigrant on average may send back perhaps about $3,000-4,000 per year to Mexico - making their total of $25 billion in remittances a major source of Mexico’s national income. So the money sent south may approximate much of the cost of providing support for the nation’s resident illegal population in the first place.

Americans have never minded helping the poor in their midst, even during hard times. But it’s fair for us to wonder whether our own rising taxes go in part to pay for those who are subsidizing the Mexican government’s inability or unwillingness to provide basic care for its own citizens.

Finally, Mexico has seen the worst spate of drug violence in its recent history - threatening to reduce the government to the status of a narco-state like Colombia in the 1980s. Over 7,000 Mexican citizens have been killed in gun battles so far this year between government security forces and the drug cartels. Who wants that violence to keep spilling over into major U.S. cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles?

Politically, the Obama administration is between a rock and a hard place - under partisan pressure to go further than any past government in easing immigration enforcement while the wider public increasingly wants the border strictly enforced and illegal immigration ended. Polls of all sorts reveal consistently that the public believes illegal immigration is a serious problem and that the government is not doing enough to stop it.

Apparently, a hesitant Mr. Obama hopes that the crisis over illegal immigration will just go away on its own - despite his now-forgotten April vow to enact “comprehensive immigration reform.”

The economic slowdown, together with beefed-up security and the border wall, have cut down the number of illegal entries to the lowest number in recent years. Privately, Mr. Obama must be happy that the pool of illegal immigrants is shrinking, allowing the formable forces of American assimilation to work on smaller, more integrated populations, without politically charged talk about amnesty and deportation. Publicly, he can lament to his Hispanic base that Mr. Bush, not he, was responsible for the wall and increased security.

In other words - like his positions on the need for more troops n Afghanistan and the nuclear crisis with Iran - Mr. Obama is voting “present” on illegal immigration.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.