The Politics of Immigration --and Everything Else

Posted: Jun 26, 2012 12:01 AM
Arizona's grasp of constitutional niceties may be imperfect according to U.S. Supreme Court standfasts, but the state's attempt to wrestle with the immigration conundrum deserves more respect than jurists and commentators are willing to assign it.

Like, what's a state to do when the national government refuses to act on an urgent question intimately affecting its citizens? Arizona chose to enact a law. Some of the law passed muster with the high court this week. Other portions, less artfully conceived perhaps, lost out. Arizona peace officers can check the immigration status of people they stop for nonimmigration-related offenses. What they can't do, broadly speaking, is prevent illegals from seeking work.

There we are, then -- meaning not fully enmeshed in the process of problem solving; rather, figuring out how the situation as a whole bears on prospects for re-election or defeat of the incumbent U. S. president. The immigration question, as laid out before us, really doesn't center on the rights or duties of government at one level or another; it centers on votes. Does it not seem that way with most public questions today?

What Barack Obama wishes to accomplish by way of immigration outreach, chiefly to Hispanics, is his re-election. A poll this week indicated that among this large voting bloc the president leads Mitt Romney 3 to 1...

Romney has, accordingly, the need to proceed delicately, grossly offending neither Hispanic voters nor critics of the immigration nonpolicy now in force -- if you call it force.

This is all a shame, if not a scandal. When politics, meaning the quest for votes, comes to dominate an urgent question, we are assured nothing substantive, or perhaps even useful, is going to be done. Every move becomes outreach: the act of begging.

It is pretty much how we live these days. The political parties, as in Europe prior to the financial debacle, are focused on giving things, not on taking them away. When you take something away -- a well-paying government job, the right to strike against or bargain collectively with the government -- you offend, meaning you drive away votes. When, by contrast, you hand out favors, you sometimes could listen all day without hearing all the expressions of gratitude and fealty. If your profession is the harvesting of votes, which outcome do you prefer?

President Obama, following the Supreme Court decision Monday, called it "unmistakably clear ... that Congress must act on comprehensive immigration reform." The kind of reform, apparently, in which he showed no interest prior to campaign time, but let that go for the moment. What's the mission here -- rationalizing for a change the inflow of migrants, working to attract those with prized skills, especially in technology? Or is the mission creating a network of government benefits that in turn creates a network of grateful government clients, ready to march every two years to the polls and reward the donors?

Among the prospective encumbrances of Obamacare is (or was, depending on what judgment the high court renders this week) the extension of Medicaid to just about everybody remotely considered as economically deprived. That not even relatively rich states such as Texas can afford their indicated share of the cost of serving all these new enrollees isn't the point. The point lies elsewhere -- in the politics of the thing. Can't afford these services? Sure you can: Tax the rich or the corporations or the equity funds or the banks, maybe all of them at the same time.

The strategy worked in Europe -- until it quit working a few years ago and the time came for counting euros instead of votes. Even now disbelief persists among people and office holders alike that the politics of give instead of take can't work its old magic.

So it is with immigration and the United States. Getting things right becomes a lesser expedient than manipulating sounds and smells, at least through the general election. Democracy has its undoubted blessings. These flourish most truly, nevertheless, in environments where democratic government isn't the most ambitious, best-paying game in town.

William Murchison, author and commentator, writes from Dallas. To find out more about William Murchison, and to see features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at