WASHINGTON —As commencement season gets underway in earnest, as young adults take their places in formal ceremonies marking their achievements, a small number of them hide a delicate secret that shadows their accomplishments and limits their options: They are illegal immigrants. They live in fear of deportation. They cannot travel freely, seek the best jobs or sign up for military service.
Even if they have just completed college, even if they have excellent grades, even if they have mastered chemistry or mathematics or computer science, they will encounter immediate and daunting barriers. It doesn’t matter that some offer skills for which companies are desperate; they still aren’t likely to find themselves in demand.
And that’s just crazy. The nation’s immigration policy is irrational — warped by nativism, finger-pointing and political cowardice. As President Barack Obama noted in a speech yesterday, the economy would be helped — not hurt — by immigration reform.
But Obama also knows perfectly well that Congress won’t pass a comprehensive immigration reform proposal anytime soon. Republicans refused to support George W. Bush’s proposal to modernize immigration law, and the GOP base has only grown more xenophobic since then.
Just take a look at GOP-controlled state legislatures around the country, which are rushing to adopt proposals modeled after the Arizona law that recalls apartheid. Even Georgia’s recently-passed Arizona-“lite” is certain to increase the harassment of motorists and workers with tan complexions and Spanish surnames.
Nativist sentiments have deepened despite Obama’s clear record of amping up border security. If conservatives were waiting for a less-porous border before they embraced immigration reform, they’d be lining up to support a bill: the border is more secure than ever before.
Apparently believing that conservatives would support a comprehensive bill if they were reassured about border protections, Obama has sent National Guard troops and drone surveillance aircraft to the Southern boundary. He hired more border agents. He has pursued an aggressive policy of deportations — rounding up more illegal immigrants than his predecessor.
But the hostility toward illegal immigrants isn’t based on any rational fear of cross-border narco-violence or jihadist-inspired terrorism. It’s based on deep-seated prejudices stoked by a faltering economy and an increasingly diverse population. Many native-born Americans wrongly believe that illegal workers have sapped our strength, reversed our economic fortunes and set us on a course toward decline. But let’s not kid ourselves: We aren’t prepared to grant legal status even to those who are ambitious, resourceful and hardworking — who would give to the country a great deal more than they would take from it.
Last December, a GOP Senate filibuster blocked the DREAM Act, which would have granted a path to legalization to about one million young adults who were brought here illegally when they were kids. To qualify, they would have had to complete two years of college or two years of service in the Armed Forces.
The DREAM Act might have passed if Democrats had pursued it earlier in Obama’s presidency, when they were more secure in their control of Congress. But at the time, immigration advocates opposed any remedy short of legalization for the entire population of 11 million or so. Their resistance to smaller steps was a mistake.
The president is now under intense pressure from Latino activists to use his executive authority to shelter those illegal workers who have not committed crimes since their entry. Some pro-immigrant groups have zeroed in on young adults who would be eligible for the DREAM Act as candidates for a policy of benign neglect by customs officials.
The president has resisted, but he ought to take the request more seriously. While Congress panders to the xenophobic impulses of frightened voters, the country is squandering some of its best and brightest. Obama could salvage some of that talent with a policy of selective deportation.