Like her former boss Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton is more interested in goading Republicans on immigration than she is in actually fixing our broken system. This week, Clinton announced that she would expand on Obama's executive action, which would defer deportation and grant work permits for up to five million illegal immigrants in the U.S.c
"I will fight to stop partisan attacks on the executive action that would put DREAMers, including those with us today, at risk of deportation," she said in reference to students in the audience who had come to the U.S. illegally as children. "If Congress refuses to act, as president, I would do everything possible under the law to go even further."
Clinton also said she favors a pathway to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. What she didn't say was that she would work with Congress to achieve those aims. Nor would she commit to making immigration reform an early agenda item in her presidency -- saying only it would be a "priority."
Instead, she spent her time attacking Republicans. "When they talk about 'legal status,' that is code for second-class status," she said in obvious reference to Jeb Bush, who has advocated legal residency but not necessarily full citizenship for those who came illegally as adults. She ignores, of course, that Republicans, including most prominently Marco Rubio, have sponsored legislation that would allow many of the 11 million an opportunity to become naturalized citizens, albeit with longer wait times than those who came here legally before they could apply. She also ignores a Pew Research Center poll that shows foreign-born Hispanics are more concerned about earning legal status than a path to citizenship by more than 2 to 1.
Clinton's advocacy of executive action granting legal status and a path to citizenship doesn't solve the problem. It makes it worse. One of the biggest objections to granting legal status to those who have crossed illegally into the U.S. or overstayed their visas is that it will encourage even more illegal immigration. Opponents of reform are quick to point out that the last big amnesty, in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan -- which granted legal status to four million people -- encouraged 12 million more people to come illegally.
Critics are right, but not for the reason they think. The real problem was the failure of Congress to adopt a flexible, market-driven, skills-based legal immigration law at the same time. Instead, the emphasis was on punishing employers who hired illegal immigrants, a system that turned every American who wants to hire a part-time housekeeper or gardener into a quasi-border enforcement agent. The law has never been fully enforced, largely because it cannot be. The very idea that every hiring decision in America should be subjected to some federal agency's pre-approval and monitoring is ludicrous -- and about as un-conservative an approach imaginable.
And that's the part of the equation that the secure-the-border-first crowd doesn't understand, either. Securing the border requires an overhaul of legal immigration laws that recognize labor demand. We don't produce enough engineers, mathematicians and scientists or enough people willing to pick tomatoes, clean hotels or de-bone chickens among the native-born population. We can ship many, though not all, of those jobs overseas, or we can admit legally those foreign-born with the skills and willingness to perform the jobs into the U.S. The latter helps our economy grow and benefits everyone, native and foreign-born.
If Clinton really wanted to do something constructive on immigration reform, she would say that, if elected, she would work with members of both parties who want to solve the problem, not exacerbate it. But then immigration reform has never been that important to her. It certainly wasn't part of her agenda last time she ran for president. In fact, running was what she mostly did -- away from the issue. She couldn't decide whether she was for or against driver's licenses for undocumented aliens -- a hot issue at the time. And, along with fellow Democratic senators, she opposed guest worker programs supported by the Bush administration in 2007, which ultimately doomed comprehensive reform from being brought to the Senate floor for a vote.
Now she's decided to jump all in, taking the most aggressive stand of any candidate running. Pardon me for thinking she is every bit as cynical as those on the right whose stance caters to the anti-immigrant minority in the GOP. Immigration reform shouldn't be a partisan wedge issue; it ought to be a policy priority for candidates in both parties.