Immigration reform no tougher nut than health care

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says stepped-up efforts to apprehend illegal immigrants have been successful. (SETH WENIG / Associated Press)

President Obama should have tackled immigration reform first. His drop in the polls probably wouldn’t have been any worse than the dip he’s received in attempting comprehensive health-care reform.

 Plus, after spending the better part of two years trying to hammer out an immigration compromise, Congress was closer to overhauling that law than it is, after six months of debate, to changing the way the nation buys and receives its medical care.
That doesn’t mean immigration reform would be easy. But considering the greater likelihood of success with it — which, like health-care reform, has been a defining goal of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) — Obama should have seen it as the better vehicle to forge bipartisan support. That might have even helped smooth the way for health-care reform.
Because he took the opposite approach, the president found himself at the recent trilateral conference with Mexico and Canada announcing that he had to back off his campaign promise to tackle immigration this year. “I’ve got a lot on my plate,” he pleaded. What a triumph it would have been if instead, Obama could have stood with the leaders of our two closest neighbors to shake hands on a new border pact.
Now, immigration reform may become a collateral victim in the health-care war, which has Republicans walking in lockstep with so-called Blue Dog Democrats, whose opposition to reform really has more to do with their personal reelection chances than what’s good for America.
On health care, Obama has let the legislators put forth their various ideas while he lends his support to broad themes he wants to see included in the final package. That may avoid the top-down-management criticism of the Clinton administration’s health-care initiative, but it also allows opponents to label any idea they don’t like as “Obamacare.”
That’s why the president should be very specific with immigration reform, leaving no doubt about what he wants in legislation that he says could be introduced by year’s end. He should start by telling Republicans he wants the same thing President George W. Bush wanted — a path to citizenship for the more than 12 million illegal immigrants in this country.
Although very complex, the compromise hammered out in 2008 by Democrat Kennedy and then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter gives Obama something to work with. It would allow most illegal immigrants to apply for new “Z” visas giving them probationary residency status. The plan also called for a “Y” visa to be issued to low-skilled “guest” workers such as farm laborers.
The stumbling block remains how to best move people to permanent-residency status. The compromise called for them to go back home to apply for a green card and pay $5,000 in fees and fines for their previous illegal entry. Many wouldn’t bother to do that, but others would, hoping to become full citizens.
While Obama has placed reform on a back burner, he has stepped up enforcement efforts begun by the Bush administration. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently announced that 181,000 illegal immigrants had been arrested and 215,000 deported so far this year, both figures double what they were two years ago.
Immigration reform supporters are hoping Napolitano, a former governor of border state Arizona, will eventually join their cause. She met Thursday with immigrant advocates who want her to acknowledge that making the borders more secure does little for the millions of undocumented immigrants already here.
Of course, any new immigration legislation will bring back howls that it grants unearned “amnesty” to lawbreakers. And screaming the loudest will be the same dissimulating crowd that now yells about “death panels” in the debate over health-care reform. In many cases, they are egged on by people whose primary goal is to keep lowering Obama’s poll numbers.
The president can’t ignore the polls. His success is inextricably tied to his popularity. But even in only his first eight months of office, he should have learned that Americans like a fighter. Immigration reform is something worth fighting for. It’s been supported by Republicans and Democrats. It has links to other important issues, including education, employment, and, yes, health care.
Because midterm elections occur next year, Congress may want to delay immigration reform even further. Obama should not let that happen. National security depends not only on making it harder to breach our borders; it also requires a rational program that allows entry to those we want to enter and sets up a better process to help those we want to stay.