Twenty years ago, Marvin Olasky wrote a landmark book The Tragedy of American Compassion that chronicled the left’s failed anti-poverty agenda. Olasky’s book helped pave the way for welfare reform in 1996 (sadly, his book is still relevant today).
President Obama’s unilateral immigration announcement may be a similar – though accidental – galvanizing moment on the immigration front. Instead of fixing a broken system, he has taken his party’s tendency to exploit immigrants as political pawns to a new level. He is hurting the very people he supposedly wants to help and is creating a moral imperative for the right to act seriously and constructively.
In short, his announcement was so blatantly and gratuitously political (if this was a humanitarian mission why wait until after the elections?) that he has given Republicans a greater spirit of common cause than before he acted.
If the President’s immigration order was for humanitarian and not purely political reasons, why wait until after the elections?
This is not new behavior for our president. The Obama administration – whose faith in its superior cleverness is not shaken by election outcomes – has a pattern of losing by winning, or achieving a short-term victory at the expense of a long-term defeat. He did this with ObamaCare, the stimulus, and he is doing so now with immigration.
As Carrie Sheffield writes today, Republican governors have already been leading the way on immigration reform by striking the very balance between enforcement and openness the American people want. As Republicans in Washington debate what to do next they should look to the states and another former governor who offered a clear, inspiring and enduring vision of immigration policy.
In his farewell address President Reagan said:
I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.
What Reagan said is precisely the kind of reform – walls with doors – the American people want, and can still have.
Finally, some perspective on immigration: The fact that immigration is a major policy challenge is a very good thing because it means people from all over the world are still flocking to the shining city on the hill. Immigration also is an issue about all issues – the economy, health care, the safety net, foreign policy, national security, trade, etc. That’s why one big fix or sweeping overhaul isn’t likely to work. Targeted reforms, on the other hand, can be very effective.
Immigration reform is complex and incorporates many issues, which is why Republican leaders have called for targeted reforms rather than a sweeping overhaul.
The real task for elected leaders is to keep the heating elements under the melting pot burning brightly. Those elements are the American idea and economic opportunity. The Obama administration hasn’t done a very good job on either front.
The rule of law (which itself is a humanitarian concept, just ask as those living in dictatorships) has given way to the rule of rulers, and today’s economy with stagnant wages isn’t particularly welcoming to incoming workers. The right kind of immigration reform, of course, can help create jobs but Obama’s announcement is no long-term or systemic fix. Plus, adding hundreds of thousands of new immigrants to new safety net programs that are on the verge of bankruptcy (Social Security disability could run out of money next year) isn’t a good way to help families and kids.
The irony is the tragedy of Obama’s immigration compassion is the very thing that will make enduring reform a reality.
John Hart is Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.