Arizona's controversial immigration law and Democratic responses to it have ignited a fierce political fight that will only intensify as the law goes into effect soon. As in all wars, the first casualty is truth.
Republicans have been criticized for their support of the bill, SB 1070, but it is now commonly believed that President Barack Obama supports expanding legal immigration. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Immigration restrictionists are perpetuating the myth that Obama wants to flood America with foreigners. Central to this claim is the charge that he's intent on granting amnesty to the roughly 10.8 million illegal immigrants in the United States. But in fact Barack Obama is the most anti-immigrant president since Eisenhower.
The Obama administration is setting deportation records. Almost 300,000 illegal immigrants were deported in 2009, a record, and a 5 percent increase over 2008. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement memo last February lamented that deportations for 2010 would not reach the yearly quota of 400,000 unless strategies were changed. That President Obama is presiding over a deportation quota, and that his immigration enforcement service was trying to increase the pace of deportations, was a rude shock to many immigrant supporters of the president.
Obama's Department of Labor (DOL) has put in place new regulations that will make it more difficult for American farmers to temporarily hire foreign workers. The regulations will raise the minimum wage for foreign farm workers and transfer all compliance costs to employers. This will likely have the unintended cost of pushing more foreigners and farmers into the black market.
Obama's administration is also mulling increasing the fees for permanent residence cards by $75, applications for naturalization certificates by $140, and applications for status as a temporary resident by $420. These hikes would raise unsubstantial sums for the government but dash the hopes of many poor potential immigrants. The administration is trying to make hiring foreigners more difficult to help American workers. Making the hiring of foreigners more bureaucratic will funnel many of them into the illegal market. But farmers can always hire people off the books if the cost of hiring legal foreign workers or Americans becomes too high. Thanks to these and other regulations, there will be plenty of willing illegal immigrants ready to snap up new job opportunities.
The Obama administration is also expanding workplace immigration raids. There are more than 25,000 random workplace H1-B visa inspections scheduled next year -- a fivefold increase over last year! The H1-B is a company-sponsored temporary work visa for highly skilled and educated foreigners. Limited to 85,000 for private corporations (there is no quota for nonprofit research institutions), 25,000 inspections could well cover the majority of firms employing H-1Bs.Workplace inspections are very destructive interventions. When government agents inspect businesses, work can grind to a halt for days on end as they take their time checking paperwork, interviewing people, and comparing the acquired information with their files.
President Obama ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to Arizona recently and is seeking an additional $500 million for border security. Add that to more than 90,000 employees in the federal immigration services and more than $20 billion devoted to enforcing immigration laws, and it's clear that Obama is doing more to combat illegal immigration than any president in living history.
Immigration restrictionists ignore this. Yet deportations, raids and increasing regulations have characterized every major decision Obama has made on the immigration issue. Besides token support for Comprehensive Immigration Reform and tepid criticism of SB 1070, Obama has not acted like an immigration-friendly president. It's time he changed course.
Expanding legal immigration and streamlining our creaky immigration system are the only real reforms that will do away with the black market in labor and help the American economy start creating jobs again.
The Obama administration's enforcement only strategy will produce more illegal immigration in the long-run and a more pervasive black market.