Juliette Kayyem

Immigration can be solved in the middle


They worry about the economy here, and the public schools, and a fit of violence by bored teenagers. But as the heat turns from powerful to painful in just a few hours, and people run inside for relief, there is little talk of the immigration wars that rage in the political campaigns or a looming Supreme Court decision about Arizona’s anti-immigrant law. Immigrants rebuilt this state after Hurricane Katrina; that memory is often why, despite being a pretty conservative place, there is little hatred of the other here. As one Republican politician told me, “We are conservative, yes, but we know Arizona is not where we should be.”

The immigration story here and, indeed, most everywhere, is different than the one that pits President Obama and the long-sought decision to halt the deportation of young people against Mitt Romney, who opposed it on technical grounds. The American public, not just the Hispanic community, has long passed any equivocation; they immediately supported the decision by a 2-to-1 margin.


That support marks a growing consensus on immigration: that comprehensive immigration reform may be desirable, but failure to pass it is not a barrier to progress. The conventional wisdom, and one that even Romney reiterated this week, has been that maximum effort must be placed on this ever-elusive proposal which includes, whether through amnesty or self-deportation or something in between, dealing with the millions of undocumented immigrants all at once. But the pursuit of comprehensive immigration reform is not a precondition to immigration sanity.

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

This focus on one big solution has muted our recognition that we are beginning to form a different narrative about immigration that shuns both the extremes of the right, too cruel and unforgiving, and of the left, too kind and forgiving.

Traveling this country, outside the areas where conventional wisdom is formed, makes the contours of this other narrative clear. Arizona, the outlier, is left to suffer from its self-destructive behavior; relatively few states seem inclined to follow suit, given the economic and political toll such radical conservatism has taken on the state. Alabama, which quickly followed Arizona down the path, is already redressing some of the excesses. Mississippi defeated similar provisions.

At the border, greater enforcement and economic realities have reduced the quantity of illegal crossings. Even by conservative estimates, there is no net increase in the number of undocumented immigrants; just as many are leaving as sneaking in.

In cities like New York and Boston, the growing consensus is that our political failure on illegal immigration has blinded us to the need for changes to our legal migration rules. Bipartisan support for removing the cap on H-1B visas for immigrants with special skills coveted by the private sector should not be left dangling as we figure out our illegal immigration problem.


For too long, liberals and immigrant-rights activists have used a strategy of all or nothing to advance their cause. It is why legislative advancement on the DREAM Act was delayed and then doomed; they feared that if the administration focused too much on the easy cases, the high-school valedictorians who did not even know they weren’t native born, then the harder ones — including illegal immigrants with no DREAM-like stories — would be forgotten.

It may have taken the pressure of a looming election to get Obama to change the rules for young people who came to the United States as children. Whatever the political implications of the Hispanic vote are for the parties, the nation does not live only in election cycles.

And even if, as many commentators suggest, the Supreme Court rules in favor of Arizona’s law next week, that victory could backfire on the very conservatives who pushed the law. Arizona’s demand that police check the papers of anyone they think might be an illegal immigrant is better viewed as a cautionary tale on what happens when politicians stray too far from a consensus narrative.

Settling for a piecemeal approach is just that: settling. But it is not failure. Little by little, neither too cruel nor too kind, the momentum for change is increasing.

As it should. Nothing remains static. This week, a Pew Research Center study confirmed that Asians are now the fastest-growing immigrant population and are contributing in unique ways to our skilled economy. That’s evident in every high-tech business in Silicon Valley — but also, surprisingly, in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where Vietnamese-born fishermen share small vessels with their Cajun partners.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter