Obama's Immigration Dilemma

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on October 7, 2010

President Obama is caught in an immigration dilemma. He has long favored a "pathway to citizenship" and legalization of the 11-12 million undocumented immigrants now living in the United States. However, the public is ambivalent about legalizations programs and has made it very clear that they want the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States dramatically reduced, if not substantially eliminated.

The president understands this even though his very strong preference is for legalization. Immigration enforcement is something he has to be seen as doing in order to burnish his credentials to make a successful legalization push. It is the latter that truly motivates him.

The reasons for this asymmetry between legalization and enforcement have to do with Obama's view of himself as a historic avatar of fairness and thus the champion of the world's, and certainly America's, have-nots. He buttresses this ambition with his repeated observation that illegal immigrants only want a better life and therefore their wish to live and work here, even illegally, is entirely understandable and their ambitions for a better life very American. As true as these sentiments might be, the president has less sympathy for the cultural and political costs that having 11-12 millions persons living and working here in violation of our immigration laws, and for the feelings of many Americans that their government is unable or unwilling to protect this country's borders and way of life.

And finally there is the raw political calculation that in delivering amnesty Obama can cement Latino ties to himself for his reelection and for the Democratic Party more generally in the future. While immigration is not the top issue for Hispanics, 31 percent rate it as extremely important. Obama's legalization push is a clever political strategy that has no political downside except the public has very mixed feelings about these proposals.

And that, to repeat, is Obama's immigration dilemma. So Obama is an enthusiastic supporter of legalization and a reluctant immigration law enforcer. What happens when a president's heart-felt policy desire meets the reality of necessity in the immigration policy arena?

You get reluctant and ambivalent enforcement that can hardly wait to announce that these efforts have been successful, so that the president can get with his real purpose, which is legalization. And nowhere is the gap between his reluctance and his ambition more clear than in his newly announced policy of immigration audits.

The New York Times announced the change in workplace enforcement focus from high-profile raids to much audits with an article entitled, "Illegal Workers Swept From Jobs in 'Silent Raids.'" Those last two words – "Silent Raids" – are key.

Gone are the pictures of immigrant SWAT teams swarming a business location and pursuing illegal immigrants fleeing from their work stations. Gone are the pictures of immigrants cuffed together and marched to waiting busses to be driven off to jail, given a hearing, and subsequently deported. Gone are the news stories of parents unable to return to their families, or children waiting for their parents who, because they are detained, are unable able to come home.

In all of these elements audits are a more humane element of a workplace enforcement policy than SWAT team raids. But the "silent raids" also have a political advantage for the administration. They dramatically quiet the drama and thus the trauma level of how enforcement efforts are viewed by the very communities that are most likely to experience the results on a first-hand basis.

Vivid, dramatic SWAT team raids that round up employees are much less low-key than visits to an employer's personnel offices. The first are almost guaranteed to generate activists' protests and associate the administration with policies that are directly targeted against illegal immigrants themselves. The second are much less likely to associate an administration with a dramatic, visible and, for parts of the Hispanic community, disturbing policy.

The administration's ambivalence about enforcement is clearly visible in its approach to the illegal immigrants who are found to be working without authorization. The Times article notes that "In another shift, the immigration agency has moved away from bringing criminal charges against immigrant workers who lack legal status but have otherwise clean records." In other words, employers may fire the illegal-immigrant workers, but the government knows which ones they are and does nothing further about it. This is the Obama administration's immigration version of "benign neglect," which a dictionary defines as a "policy or attitude of ignoring a situation instead of assuming responsibility for managing or improving it."

Doing nothing about illegal immigrants whose violation of immigration and work permit laws has itself been documented sends a signal that breaking American immigration laws is alright so long as you don't get caught up in an audit. It is the equivalent of a passive presidential amnesty.

Even better from the standpoint of undocumented immigrants, and the Obama's administration's pro-legalization stance in the Hispanic community, even getting caught up in an audit and fired doesn't mean you can't get another job, also illegally but this time with better false papers.

And that is exactly what has happened. The Times reports that when undocumented workers were fired from one Washington State farm after an immigration audit, "Many immigrants purchased new false documents and went looking for jobs in more distant orchards."

One is reminded, very strongly here, of the president's approach to Afghanistan: Appear to engage (surge), pause, then begin to withdraw. Paralleling that, the president's immigration approach seems to be: appear to enforce, but not really.

In the Times article, ICE head John Morton said that the goal of the audits was to create "a culture of compliance" among employers. Perhaps it will succeed in doing so over time if it expands to the industries that are mostly likely to have illegal immigrants working in them, and the number of audits increases dramatically to realistically be a deterrent to America's many millions of businesses.

In the meantime, the Obama administration in the sphere of immigration is fast beginning to resemble another, previous administration, that advised the public to "watch what we do, not what we say." In using that phrase, Attorney General John Mitchell of the Nixon administration, to whom that phase belongs, actually intended, in columnist William Safire's words, "to reassure blacks that, foot-dragging poses aside, the Nixon Justice Department would accomplish desegregation. John Mitchell knew that the appearance of a tilt toward white Southerners would ease the way for acceptance of steady civil rights progress for blacks, and sure enough, what he did in this area was much better than what he said."

The Obama administration has pulled a Reverse Nixon. The Nixon administration feinted reluctance to mask its effort to make civil right progress, which it did. The Obama administration feints enforcement to cloak legalization efforts in a patina of responsiveness to public concerns.