Immigration reform would be a win for Obama and the country

Economic and fiscal benefits of a deal with Congress would help the president shake off the second-term doldrums

June 25, 2013|Thomas F. Schaller

Presidential second terms tend to be disasters, but, to paraphrase Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, each is disastrous in its own way.

The big domestic initiative of George W. Bush's second term was Social Security privatization. Politically, it was a complete failure: Coupled with his administration's botched Hurricane Katrina response — or rather, non-response — Mr. Bush's failed Social Security gambit plunged the domestic side of the Bush presidency into a political death spiral from which it never recovered. As the domestic policy gambit of President Barack Obama's early second term, immigration reform will likewise set the tone for the remainder of his presidency.

There are other parallels, too. Because of the electoral risks, each president waited until after his re-election to make a serious push for reform. Mr. Bush's 2005 attempt to reform Social Security came a little more than two decades after the last major overhaul, in 1983; Mr. Obama's bid to fix immigration comes 27 years after Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, in 1986.

The big difference? Mr. Bush's Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress in 2005, whereas the Democrats presently hold only the Senate. Surprise, surprise: Yet again those rump House Republicans — who give double meaning to the term "broken record" — are bottling up the legislation and making ill-informed comments that please their far-from-mainstream constituencies.

But there are divisions within the House caucus that Speaker John Boehner may be able to exploit to force through a bill that the Senate, which has exhibited much greater bipartisan cooperation, can pass. The key compromise between the Senate parties is the pairing of heightened border security (which Republicans want) with path-to-citizenship amnesty for the millions of undocumented immigrants (which Democrats want). Proposed by Republican Sens. Bob Corker and John Hoeven, the increased border security amendment "broke the [Senate] logjam," proclaimed Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer.

If this compromise also satisfies enough recalcitrant House Republicans to reach a 218-vote majority, Congress can pass reform after years of loose talk and delays. And preliminary analyses suggest there will any number of immediate and long-term benefits to the new law.

Immigration will not only improve the lives of immigrants and their families but also the economic fortunes of those working-class Americans — and particularly African-Americans — whose employment options and wages will also improve. This sounds paradoxical, but it's one of what economists call "complementarities" of increased legal immigration. Another potential upside is that, compared to current law, the new law — if passed with an amendment advocated by several female U.S. senators — will permit more foreign-born women to become American citizens.

But the broader benefits of immigration reform are the medium- and longer-term economic prosperity and competitiveness it promises.

Like most industrialized Western countries, America is aging rapidly. Younger nations enjoy faster growth rates without the fiscal drag (at least not yet) of financing the retirements and health care of their senior citizens. Immigration reform will provide a demographic transfusion of new blood, literally and metaphorically. For those worried about America's ability to compete with emerging economies, immigration is no panacea — but it's a start.

Legal workers also pay payroll taxes, which will increase the solvency of Medicare and Social Security. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office issued a report stating that immigration reform will reduce the federal budget deficit by $175 billion over the next decade. The fiscal windfall will more than pay the costs of the beefed-up security provisions, calming the worries of many Republicans and deficit hawks.

Best of all, immigration reform will reaffirm our self-image and global boast that we remain the planet's uniquely dynamic and forward-looking nation, one that always has and will continue to embrace those seeking the American dream of personal prosperity and collective identity.

As for Mr. Obama, immigration reform offers him the chance to avoid the pitfalls that typically cripple second-term presidents. Paired with the short-term economic infusion and long-term investments of the 2009 stimulus and the 2010 Affordable Care Act's health care reforms, overhauling immigration will reinforce his legacy as one of the most impactful presidents of the modern era. Given the myriad problems he's faced since his re-election, he really needs it.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is Twitter: @schaller67.

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