FORMER FLORIDA governor Jeb Bush made headlines recently with the observation that for most immigrants who unlawfully cross the border to find work, coming to the US isn’t an act of hostility. “It’s an act of love; it’s an act of commitment to your family,” Bush said. “It shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families.”
This was no gaffe. Bush spoke deliberately, even though he knew he would be slammed by hard-liners in his own Republican Party. Pundits immediately speculated on the impact of Bush’s words on a potential White House run, but its real significance is as a reminder that immigration reform — and sympathy for undocumented immigrants — has a strong Republican pedigree. As The Wall Street Journal remarked, “Not too long ago that would have been called Reagan orthodoxy.”
Ironically, most Republicans’ abandonment of Reaganesque policies on immigration has pushed the Obama administration — or given it cover, depending on one’s point of view — to pursue a needlessly harsh deportation policy that has expelled immigrants at a record-breaking pace. President Obama insists his administration targets only “criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community.” But as The New York Times documented this month, fewer than one-fifth of the nearly 2 million immigrants deported under the current president were convicted of serious crimes.
If Obama thinks that getting tougher on illegal immigration will help build support for comprehensive reform, including a path to citizenship for more than 11 million Americans who are in the country illegally, it’s a poor strategy. GOP lawmakers keep finding excuses not to move forward. House Speaker John Boehner ludicrously argued that because the White House has unilaterally changed so many provisions of the Affordable Care Act, Republicans “don’t trust that the [immigration] reform that we’re talking about will be implemented as it was intended to be.”
There’s no good reason for conservatives to believe Obama will pull back from the harsher aspects of immigration policy. And there’s no reason for Obama to think that acting tough will change Republican minds.