President Obama laid out his long awaited plan for immigration Thursday night amid criticism, relief and good-old fashioned political bickering. While there really weren’t any surprises on his proposals, Republicans have gone on the attack almost immediately, highlighting the divide between the two parties on the issue. But with all the posturing and fighting, what did the president get right, and what did he get wrong?
First, we need to address why immigration policy is a mess in this country as it always is and it always has been. The problem is more than just the influx of illegal immigrants across the southern border, which is really more of a symptom of the problem rather than the actual issue at hand.
No, the real issue at hand is to address the reasons why people are coming here. To get a better life for their families? To attain the American Dream? To escape brutal conditions in third-world countries? Yes, maybe, and sometimes, respectively. But they simply would not come if there were not a need for them here that provided them the opportunities.
We currently have a quota system in this country for the number of legal immigrants that are allowed to come in. That number is currently 675,000 permanent residents who are allowed to come in worldwide, with some flexibility allowed for family members. That number is further broken down into several categories: family-based, work-related, refugee status and other emergency situations. Those categories are broken down even further to give preference to people with different sponsor statuses, work-related skillsets, and what region or country they are coming from.
The real issue here is the employment-based immigration, however. Only 140,000 visas are allocated each year for these purposes, which you may recognize as well below the estimated one million per year average that entered our country between 2000 and 2012. The quota system was not addressed directly by Obama’s plan, thus will not have much long term impact on the issue from this standpoint. As long as we are allowing fewer workers into this country legally than are actually needed people will continue to sneak in for those jobs.
What his plan does address, however, is the status of people who are already here. Republicans are calling his plan “amnesty” and attacking it because it allows those who have been here for five years or more to stay and apply for citizenship. The right fears this plan for a number of reasons.
First of all, they like to decry that illegal immigrants are not paying their fair share of taxes. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, illegal aliens often pay more in taxes than they receive in services, especially when compared to American citizens. While not all of them may pay payroll taxes, they still are subject to sales taxes, property taxes, and a whole slew of other types of taxes while they live their lives. This argument relies on people who are simply not aware of how much they truly pay in taxes and assuming that the income tax is the only one that matters.
Not only that, but when they pay said taxes they do not receive all of the services that most Americans enjoy. For example, those that pay into Social Security will not be eligible to get that money back. The same goes for police services and other civil services that they do not partake in for fear of arrest or deportation. The argument that illegal immigrants do not pay their fair share in taxes is really an issue of tax reform, not illegal immigration.
The next argument they like to make is that illegal immigrants will take Americans jobs. This is just flat out not true. As mentioned above, they would not come here if there was no work for them in the first place. Put simply, they are doing jobs that Americans won’t do, otherwise they would literally have had no reason to come here in the first place.
No, the issue here is that they will do some of those jobs at a much lower rate than Americans will, and a lot of that has more to do with the fact that they are not subject to the same minimum wage rules that citizens are. This argument is more of an argument for abolishing minimum wage requirements period, or at least enforcing some sort of minimum wage that would apply to migrant workers, a tall order in and of itself. There will always be a black market for labor, however, as people will sell their services for whatever they are truly worth. That’s economics 101, folks.
So that brings us to the next argument a lot of people make; the cultural and linguistic one. It goes a little something like this:
“When my ancestors came here x00 years ago they assimilated and learned the official language of this country, which is English. They adopted American values and became a part of the great ‘Melting Pot.’”
This argument is so flatly incorrect in so many ways it’s almost funny. At least, it would be if it wasn’t completely couched in xenophobia and racist assumptions. First of all, there is no such thing as an “official language” in the United States, and that was by design. Each state hoped to attract as many immigrants as possible and being more generalized in their requirements helped attain that goal. That should still be the United States’ goal, from both an economic and a cultural standpoint. We are stronger as a whole when we have more people and more diversity.
Not only that, but immigrants have never been known to drop their culture and assimilate. Most of the time they set up enclaves and smaller communities within larger cities in order to retain their language and culture. That’s the reason most older cities have a Chinatown or something similar for other large immigrant populations.
What Obama’s immigration plan will really do, however, is offer relief to people who already live here. They already pay taxes, they are a part of the economy and the culture of the United States. They will no longer have to fear being sent away without so much as a “thanks for stopping by.”
The issue that many Americans will have with this action is how the president went about it, however. He is blatantly circumventing Congress due to their stonewalling on the issue. Frankly, Congress should be doing something more about it, the problem is that nobody agrees on what the problem actually is, so the solutions coming from different sides are not acceptable to the rest. Obama was extremely defensive about this, constantly claiming that every president in recent decades has taken similar action, specifically Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. This is a half-truth at best, with Bush and Reagan both had backing of Congress when they took their actions, though that was always unlikely to occur with the current political climate.
But the actions Obama is taking are likely 100 percent legal, if a little bad for optics and the political climate. Realistically, Congress really should pass some bills, and those bills should include a massive expansion on the number of immigrants allowed in on work-visas, to say nothing of the humanitarian ones. Immigrants, both legal and illegal, are essential to our economy, and the more we let in the better off we will be in both the short and long runs.