President Obama should adopt the McCain border plan

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Friday, July 30, 2010

The court victory that the Obama administration won this week in Arizona will not make the ugly national tension over illegal immigration go away. The president needs to take this brief respite, step back from the Washington logjam and remember what he and every president since Ronald Reagan has been trying to achieve.

If he does, he might ask: Why not accept John McCain's 10-point border security plan?

Answer: He should. Now. Or immediately after the Arizona primary election on Aug. 24.

Policy wonks and pro-immigrant Democrats will object, but they are stuck in a mind-set that no longer applies. Rightly or wrongly, the public's patience with illegal immigration has run out. Barack Obama, like George W. Bush before him, has had no choice politically or legally but to enforce the law. The ballooning enforcement budget -- about 10 times larger than in 1993 -- is diminishing the flow of new immigrants.

But it is also forcing Obama to do what he and the other presidents have tried to avoid: deport those unauthorized people -- many with families -- who are honest and hardworking and integral to the U.S. economy. This year alone, the Obama administration is on track to deport about 400,000 illegal immigrants -- only a small percentage of them real criminals -- out of an estimated population of less than 11 million.

Nearly 5 percent of the nation's workforce is made up of unauthorized immigrants. Large parts of agriculture, construction, and the leisure and hospitality industries would risk collapse if workers were deported. In 2008, the last year for which data are available, the unauthorized made up 19 percent of building, groundskeeping and maintenance workers; 17 percent of the construction trades; and 12 percent of food preparation and service workers, according to the Census Bureau.

It is easy to say that unemployed Americans would fill these jobs -- even if that were possible, which it largely isn't -- but the economic upheaval would be disastrous at a time when the nation is struggling to recover from a deep recession.

Most of these immigrants are now part of us. Some Americans are obsessed with blaming the immigrants for being illegal, but that thinking fails to recognize that we as a nation are as guilty as these gardeners, dishwashers, baby sitters, home-care providers and chicken-pluckers. The hiring of unauthorized workers was part of a tacitly accepted labor system begun by farmers in the Southwest in the 1960s and spread by employers and consumers across the country. All acted illegally.

Illegal immigrants helped fuel the great economic expansion of the 1990s and into this decade. It is true that the shrunken pie caused by the recession now has to be split among more mouths, but that is what you do in a family and community.

Perhaps this is why in polls, most Americans say they want to legalize those already here while backing the Arizona law as a way to stop more from coming illegally. In a CNN/Opinion Research poll released this week, fully 81 percent said they would favor "creating a program that would allow illegal immigrants already living in the United States for a number of years to stay here and apply to legally remain in this country permanently if they had a job and paid back taxes."

Yet Obama remains stuck with his supporters in trying to craft outdated grand bargains that would trade legalization for enforcement that is already being done.

Obama should hold a summit on the border with Southwest senators, accept the plan by McCain and Sen. Jon Kyl, also of Arizona, and say that he is submitting legislation that would lead to legalization. Privately, he should challenge the Southwest Republicans to take credit for the enforcement or be exposed for economic and moral irresponsibility if they continue to demand that enforcement be implemented "first," which their histories suggest they don't actually believe in.

The McCain-Kyl plan calls for 6,000 National Guard troops, more Border Patrol officers, drones and expansion of a program that jails repeat border jumpers under criminal charges.

McCain, once vulnerable, now coasts to reelection. He is the Senate linchpin. His plan may be more grandstanding than effective policy, but the alternative is the steady deportation of nearly 11 million people. We would all suffer.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is

More Post commentary on immigration: Former commissioners of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service on why the Obama administration had to sue Arizona over its immigration law.

A University of Arizona law professor and the University of California at Davis law school dean on the Supreme Court ruling that supports the profiling in Arizona's law.

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