The Immigration Vote: Ineffective Policies Do Little but Energize Advocacy Groups

Last week’s decision by a federal judge in Arizona to block parts of the recent state measure targeting illegal immigrants may be good law. It is definitely good politics, especially for Democrats but even for Republicans. But it is also bad policy.

This decision was engineered by the Obama administration to placate immigrant advocates angered by its unwillingness to invest political capital in any version of “comprehensive immigration reform.’’ In addition, advocates are aroused by the relatively high levels of workplace enforcement and deportations that Obama has achieved by pursing subtler, more targeted policies than his predecessor.

But don’t blame the advocates for the ruling. Blame the administration for pandering to them, which is not the same as giving them what they want: minimal enforcement and amnesty for as many illegal immigrants as possible.

The only thing the ruling does is to keep the immigration pot stirred in politically useful ways. For example, it keeps Hispanics focused on immigration, an issue that in poll after poll does not emerge as one of their key voting concerns. Contrary to conventional wisdom, immigration was clearly not what drove Hispanics to vote for Obama in such high numbers in 2008. Indeed, the candidate who staked the most on that issue was Senator John McCain. In November 2008 Hispanics voted for Obama largely for the same reasons that so many other Americans did — the economy and health care reform.

If the current strategy succeeds, the administration will have managed to mobilize Hispanic voters for Democrats this fall, substantially around immigration. By 2012, Obama may have delivered genuine immigration reform. But this will prove difficult if he continues to antagonize Republicans with initiatives like the one that culminated with last week’s ruling. Yet if this is the path he does end up pursuing, Hispanics will likely be all the more aroused in support of Obama.

But good politics, in this case, does not lead to good policy. To be sure, the administration is also sending 1,200 more National Guard troops to the Southwest border. But this initiative won’t do much to stem the continuing influx. Nor will it do anything to placate restrictionist activists and other Americans for whom the court ruling was a poke in the eye. It certainly won’t satisfy Republican officeholders and candidates like Senator McCain who are struggling mightily to keep up with the surge of populist sentiment against illegal immigration. From the right, Obama will only get more and more pressure for border enforcement.

Meanwhile, the judge’s ruling, whatever the specific merits of the Arizona law, will undercut efforts at the kind of interior enforcement that Americans understandably expect to see more of. The Obama administration has been enforcing federal immigration law at workplaces so as to avoid the gut-wrenching mass roundups and deportations pursued by the Bush administration. Yet with 11 million illegal immigrants in our midst, Americans see myriad other opportunities in civic and public spaces where enforcement efforts could be more visible. These are typically contexts – for example, day laborer hiring sites or overcrowded housing – where ordinary Americans feel most threatened by the social disorder inevitably resulting from large-scale migration. Not coincidentally, these are also contexts that elites — of both parties — can generally insulate themselves from.

So now we can look forward to more of the same: stymied and ineffective policies that serve mostly to energize advocacy groups and politicians who survive on recrimination and controversy. This is largely how we got into this fix in the first place. Under these conditions we will not soon be seeing any kind of rational immigration policy proposals. And few among us will be gratified — least of all the millions of illegal immigrants in our midst who will survive this imbroglio but will almost certainly not prosper.