In the latest episode of the immigration reform saga, President Obama has decided … not to decide. From political point of view, it is easy to understand Obama’s inaction: when important policy decisions are subject to cycles of electoral politics, there are few incentives and strong disincentives to take action. As a panel of experts from the nonpartisan Scholars Strategy Network recently commented, inaction affects real people — Americans and immigrants — and creates opportunity for additional problems.
I wrote in that context that in the final analysis many aspects of the current immigration impasse are rooted in difficult tensions between our hearts and our wallets. At an emotional level, most Americans want national immigration policies that express who “we” are – either a tough-minded nation of laws or a welcoming nation of immigrants. But from an economic perspective, U.S. labor markets need workers for jobs that are not being filled by natives, and employers want to attract the best workers in the global competition for talent and innovation.
Wavering between heart and wallet — like any state of indecision — has real, long term costs. In addition to the suffering inflicted on Americans and immigrants who often are a part of the same communities, an indecisive approach to immigration and the tensions it creates introduces new distinctions in an already fractured society.
Consider from an historical perspective what the proliferation of people in temporary statuses means. After World War II, the United States and other Western countries mostly abandoned the use of ethnic criteria to select legal immigrants. Recently, many of those same nations, including the United States, have implemented temporary migration programs as a strategy to meet economic labor needs while preserving the imagined national community. Yet history reveals that temporary immigrants tend to overstay their legal status, and like undocumented arrivals who may or may not be temporarily exempted from deportation, they can end up with uncertain legal status. It is all too easy for a nation to accumulate more and more categories of immigrants who are less than full citizens. When our leaders refuse to take on the difficult problems of immigration or postpone action, the nation drifts in that direction.
If the United States pursues ever more contingent statuses for newcomers rather than viewing immigration as a step to a more permanent status — as had been the case historically — American society and democracy will be in for momentous and mostly undesirable shifts. Perpetually contingent relations between millions of less than fully documented migrants and their new home country will only bring more crises like the ones we have seen in recent years.
The United States urgently needs to work out a strategy to reconcile our hearts and our wallets. We need to find our way toward stable, wise decisions not dictated by cycles of partisan elections. Mr. Obama’s decision to postpone action — which is not unrelated to the House of Representatives’ abysmal failure and cynical politics in this domain — contributes to the formation of a class of people in uncertain status. Who will win and who will lose electorally is a question with an answer less settled than many believe. But we do know this: inaction that increases the number of people in vulnerable statuses will, almost certainly, hurt our democracy and our nation’s future economic prospects.
David Cook-Martín is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Grinnell College and director of its Center for International Studies. He is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.