President Barack Obama is carefully creating the illusion that he's serious about immigration reform. In a major speech in El Paso this month he pitched the idea that reform will strengthen the middle class by undercutting an underground economy of cheap labor, and will make the U.S. more competitive globally.
But what can Obama do to advance this reform? Some would say not much, given a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. He could be presidential, beginning with setting new policy priorities. He could halt further hefty contracts with the prison-building industry to erect more detention facilities. He could ensure that true criminals - violent offenders - will be deported, not the immigrant caught rolling through a stop sign or the hundreds of young people enrolled in college, the so-called Dream Act students.
Is Obama's just covering himself? Making all the necessary talking points about "putting politics aside" and lamenting the pain of people "just trying to get by" so he can later claim, "I tried"? If so, I don't entirely fault him for it. Truth is, the Hispanic Congressional Caucus has been chewing Obama's backside for months, reminding him that as a presidential candidate he promised a pathway to legal status and full U.S. citizenship for those among the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants who can prove themselves worthy. But caucus members are saving face, too. Later, they can say to their constituents, "We tried." As anyone paying attention to politics knows, the illegal-immigrant issue has been demagogued to the point of caricature. If you're an elected official and you say anything the least pragmatic about the issue - much less show any compassion - your words can and will be used against you in the next election. Especially in a primary if you're a moderate Republican.
One promising sign is that the administration has begun calling conservatives' bluff on the fallacy that the "border must be secured first" before other reforms can be crafted. In El Paso, Obama pointed out that his administration has increased the number of border agents to the highest ever, deported the most undocumented immigrants ever, is working closely with Mexico on drug cartel violence and achieved the goal of screening 100 percent of rail shipments entering Mexico for guns and money.
And yet, he predicted, Republicans will probably "move the goalposts." "Maybe they'll say we need a moat," he quipped. "Or alligators in the moat." Yet we'll know the day this administration or any in the future is serious about immigration reform when it unequivocally speaks the truth: Powerful interests in this country demand low-wage labor to do jobs Americans won't submit to. Those interests include agribusiness and meat processors and the like, but they also include U.S. consumers - you and me. Yes, "those people" who have crossed our borders illegally are helping keep our cost of living low. You don't need to employ an illegal landscaper or nanny to reap the benefits.
If we as a nation want to keep those costs low and also want to see our laws respected, we need comprehensive immigration reform. That means new policies to allow legal entry to guest workers, and a path to citizenship for many qualified illegal immigrants already here.
Border crossings are down, as the U.S. economy has slowed. But people are still paying thousands of dollars to be smuggled, to risk being raped, robbed, left to die in the desert, or having their family blackmailed for even more money by the sort of folks who handle this service, increasingly drug dealers.
If there really were a functioning way for such a worker to arrive legally, wouldn't they take that route instead? Of course they would. No such route exists for many low-wage workers. We have a bureaucratic system, massively backlogged, that meets neither humanitarian needs of immigrants nor the country's economic and security needs for low- or highly skilled labor.
Americans also need to understand that we cannot deport our way out of this mess. The Center for American Progress estimated that the costs of a mass deportation would be $206 billion over five years, and possibly as high as $230 billion. That's not going to happen, on fiscal grounds alone.
In El Paso, Obama's prepared remarks included this, intended as a slight to Republicans: "When an issue is this complex and raises such strong feelings, it's easier for politicians to defer the problem until after the next election." Yes, and it would be very easy for Obama to keep tossing rhetorical platitudes in both directions with talk of "a nation of laws" and "that first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty." Or he can set aside the flourishes and lead firmly, changing the policies and priorities within his administration.
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Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at email@example.com.