President Obama recently issued an edict exempting an estimated 800,000 to 1 million illegal aliens from the consequences of federal immigration law. Ostensibly, the blanket amnesty applies to those who arrived before the age of 16 and are younger than 30, who are in or graduated from high school or have served in the military, and who have not been convicted of a felony or multiple misdemeanors. While most Americans sympathize with those who were brought into the United States as toddlers, raised as de facto Americans and followed the rules, the policy of exempting hundreds of thousands en masse in the long run may create from the law far more problems than it solves.
First was the cynical timing. In 2009 and 2010, Democrats had a supermajority in the Senate and a majority in the House and easily could have enacted such a law over all opposition. So why was the edict handed down in a tough campaign year?
Then there is a problem of constitutionality, an especially serious issue for former constitutional law lecturer Barack Obama, who ran for president on the premise that he would restore respect for the separation of powers. But as seen in the reversal of the order of Chrysler’s creditors, the attempt to shut down a nonunion Boeing plant in South Carolina, the decision not to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, and the recent use of executive privilege in order to withhold Operation Fast and Furious documents, this administration sometimes just bypasses a now-difficult Congress to rule by fiat.
The move contradicts Mr. Obama’s earlier claim that a de facto amnesty “would not conform with my appropriate role as president.” He later reiterated that “some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own,” but “that’s not how our system works.”
In theory, the federal government treats illegal aliens on a case-by-case basis, as it allots limited resources to determine who should be deported most urgently and who need not be. The president has added some vague qualifiers to his blanket proclamation concerning schooling and criminal activity. But given that in a state like California where Hispanics are dropping out of high school at a rate of nearly 40 percent, will the new policy result in summary deportations? That is, once we have chosen those who will not be deported, do we then go after thousands who dropped out, went on state assistance or have been convicted of crimes? How do we authenticate age and length of residency?
Not long ago, the president, in explaining his personal desire for some sort of amnesty, lamented to Hispanic leaders that they needed to “punish our enemies” at the polls. But is illegal immigration always the single most important issue for Hispanics? Some polls show the Hispanic community divided almost evenly over open borders. That is understandable, given that the presence of 11 million to 15 million illegal aliens masks the national profile of Hispanic success. In terms of the rates of assimilation, integration, intermarriage and economic ascendency, Hispanics who migrated to the United States legally are mirroring earlier experiences of successful southern European immigrants.
In Southwestern states, American citizens of Hispanic ancestry share in the increased costs associated with spiraling incarceration rates, plummeting test scores and overtaxed social services, which, at least in part, reflect the difficult efforts to accommodate those who arrived illegally from the poorest regions of Latin America. A cynic might argue that employers and identity-politics activists jointly welcomed illegal aliens, the former wanting cheaper labor, the latter wanting more constituents. But driving down wages in hard times and increasing government costs are not always beneficial for small businesses and entry-level American workers - increasing numbers of whom are Hispanics.
Finally, is it wise to tie our immigration policy so intimately to race and ethnicity rather than individual merit and circumstances? We equate massive influxes with Latin America and particularly Mexico, but we forget that Asians now comprise the largest group of immigrants. Almost all come legally, and many arrive with capital, college educations and specialized skills. Following the president’s election-year example, are we to expect the Asian community, in the fashion of Hispanic lobbyists, to demand even more visas for kindred groups? Should we now waive the immigration rules for economic refugees from the collapsing European Union?
The president’s decision is politically tainted, constitutionally suspect, cynically timed and poorly thought out. But it did result in one unintended consequence: We are reminded once again that millions of foreign nationals are dying to reach the United States - and to stay at any cost after they get here.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.