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Jose Antonio Vargas and the Immigration Policy Mess

My kids and I just read Jose Antonio Vargas’s brave and gripping account, “My life as an undocumented immigrant.” His essay underscores what many people across the political spectrum already know: “Unauthorized residents” are here. They do more than pick our fruit and mind our kids. Their kids go to school with our kids. They sometimes work down the hall or in the next cubicle.

Vargas describes his ambivalent encounters with many people, from whom he needed to keep secret his undocumented status. He notes many people along the way whom he told or who figured things out. I’m sure analogous stories could be told by thousands of people near my home. I remember a lunch conversation with a friend in which he mentioned that a public safety intervention sought volunteers to help kids get safely home from school. Many parents showed up to help. When they heard about the background check, many melted away.

We live in a strange political moment regarding immigration reform. As in the Arab-Israeli dispute, there is a broad consensus among policymakers on the outlines of what should be done: We should provide some path to legitimate citizenship for the millions of people such as Mr. Vargas who are here illegally, but who contribute every day to our communities. We should tighten employer sanctions and law enforcement moving forward. Unfortunately, as in the Arab-Israeli dispute, knowledge of the general destination is not always sufficient to navigate large obstacles along the way.

The most pressing reasons to pass immigration reform are rooted in our common humanity. People may have snuck across the border. Yet in many ways, we have asked them to come. We want their compliant low-wage labor to pack our meat, to mow our lawns, and to shingle our roofs. Yet we tell them: Please don’t use our prenatal care clinic if you are pregnant. Please don’t use our nice hospital (okay, you can use that gritty county ER) if you get cut in that meat packing plant or if you fall off that roof. We ask for cheap workers, even as we resent the human bonds and obligations that inevitably accompany these economic arrangements.

Even if you disagree with this moral position, there are many policy reasons for reform, as well. It is very difficult to make sound public health, education, and law enforcement policies with 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows and thus avoiding medical, educational, and social services. Undocumented immigrants and their children need to be vaccinated to curb infectious diseases. They need to call police to address domestic violence and gang-related crime. They need to openly participate in the education system to improve the academic performance of their children. They need to be in a position to report and resist exploitative labor practices.

In my own arena of health policy, one must somehow address the millions of noncitizens, including undocumented immigrants, who lack insurance coverage. This reality creates huge financial and administrative complications for safety-net providers across the country.

And, of course, this reality creates a poisonous political dynamic in the battle over health reform. In 2008, Republican provocateur Dick Morris and Eileen McGann wrote clumsily dishonest op-eds claiming that then-candidate Obama’s health plan would provide undocumented immigrants with generous insurance coverage: “Do we really want to give them federally paid coverage equal to what US senators get, as Obama proposes?”Adding a prescient death-panel twist, they added that the Obama plan’s approach would be to “Treat the 37-year-old illegal with his whole life to live before you spend scarce resources on an overweight, diabetic, 80-year-old citizen with high blood pressure who smokes.”

Morris and McGann’s real insight was that the New York Post will publish anything. As candidate Obama had openly stated on national television, his plan didn’t cover undocumented immigrants. Democratic health policy-types were quick to point this out. Yet many of us did so ruefully; we wanted to offer undocumented immigrants something better. Yet this is actually pretty hard. Not allowing the undocumented to purchase subsidized coverage through a health insurance exchange increases the possibility of adverse selection while leaving unaddressed primary care and prevention issues of great import to affected communities. We fall back, instead, on subsidizing community health centers, which play an essential role but which leave unaddressed many other concerns.

For the above reasons, and for political reasons, too, many Democrats and Republicans would welcome immigration reform. Politicians can read the census projections as well as anyone. President Obama has obvious reasons to push for reform. Republicans have equally obvious reasons to do this, especially to staunch their political bleeding within the nation’s fastest-growing constituency. Agribusiness and other interests traditionally aligned with Republicans presumably want to see this done, too. A tragedy of the last decade has been the failure of such disparate figures as George W Bush, John McCain, Ted Kennedy, and Barack Obama to get this done.

I believe three principal obstacles are holding things up. First, we live in a time of political gridlock in which large-scale, comprehensive reform packages are nearly impossible to get passed. Second, whatever the Republican Party’s long-term interests, today’s Republican base won’t allow this to get done. These two obstacles are obvious, which doesn't make them any easier to address.

The third obstacle, however, is less obvious, but maybe more important. As Christopher Jencks noted in a caustic but insightful New York Review of Books essay, “The immigration charade,” our enforcement system is not credible. After all, the broad outlines of sensible policy compromise were obvious twenty-five years ago. Many Americans believed that such compromises were enacted in the 1986 reforms. And yet that didn’t happen. Employers, in their powerful desire to employ legal or illegal immigrant labor, resisted effective enforcement measures. Immigrants’ rights groups did, too.

I have huge sympathy for the latter group. The human, economic, and political costs of our current muddle would be greatly magnified if we were to enact more proficient means to find and deport de facto Americans such as Jose Antonio Vargas. Related issues such as racial/ethnic profiling and family disruption are also important. Perhaps our technical incompetence is itself a de facto compromise on these difficult issues. Truly effective enforcement would force us to confront the huge mismatch between American life and American immigration law, and the huge human consequences of trying to eliminate this mismatch entirely by moving American life into compliance with the letter of our laws.

Yet there is a real cost to having an enforcement system which can be defeated through some white tape and Xeroxing at Kinkos, or that can be defeated by finding a nearby state which offers easier access to drivers’ licenses. In this day and age, a jerry-rigged system will command little political legitimacy if it can be readily defeated by the low-tech methods Vargas employed. So the gridlock continues.

At this point, the right step might be to move incrementally through the DREAM act and measures to implement e-verify and other systems to establish sensible and credible controls. Maybe we should wait awhile for broader reforms. Let demographic trends move the political center and find a less politically-poisoned moment. But that’s easy for me to say. Neither I nor people I love bear the costs and uncertainties Mr. Vargas so movingly describes.