President Obama stretched immigration law to the greatest extent possible to provide employment authorization to 5 million people in the United States illegally. But his actions ignored the origin of America’s immigration problems: the inability for would-be immigrants to enter and work legally.
President Obama could have reformed the burdensome regulatory process that interferes with the functioning of our legal immigration system. He could have repealed the erroneous bureaucratic interpretation of the law that counted children and spouses of employer-based immigrants against the annual quota, a move that produced a massive backlog of applicants. He refused to.
Not only has the president ignored the legal system’s problems, he has also been an active contributor to them. One of the president’s first “executive actions” on immigration was to revoke the Bush administration’s reforms of the H-2A visa that streamlined the procedures for employers of seasonal farm workers. He followed with a regulatory assault on the H-2B visa for seasonal nonagricultural workers.
These regulatory moves were not surprising. As a senator, Barack Obama was one of the Democrats most opposed to the guest worker program. In 2007, he worked with the AFL-CIO and other unions to strip guest workers from the comprehensive immigration reform bill and cast the deciding vote for an amendment to sunset the new guest worker program. Obama said on the Senate floor that he didn’t want people here only as “guests” and not as “full participants in our democracy,” as if that is what they all want anyway.
Guest workers become even more important if the president’s unilateral legalization plan goes into effect. Hundreds of thousands of farm workers are predicted to be eligible who would likely abandon farm work for better jobs. While this is good for the overall economy — workers should work where their talents are best utilized — it leaves farmers in the lurch.
All this gives Republicans a major opportunity to fight back against the president’s anti-legal immigration agenda with good bills that fix the legal system. Ag and non-ag guest worker programs would end America’s illegal immigration problems. Reforms the high-skilled visa categories and green card quota would keep America competitive.
These moves would change the political narrative from one in which Republicans oppose immigration to one in which the president is forced to defend his own actions. Legal immigration reform is an issue that has never really interested the president, but without it, the U.S. is condemned to more years of dysfunctional bureaucracy, illegal immigration, and uncompetitive labor policies.
By failing to fix these problems – or push for legislative solutions either – the president is ceding the field to Republicans.