The immigrant numbers game / The Economist

Why Barack Obama’s partial amnesty won’t be reversed

SOMETIMES the hardest questions come from friendly crowds. Barack Obama on December 9th made a foray into the heartland to promote his plan to shield millions of undocumented migrants from deportation. He chose to speak in Nashville, a once-sleepy (if tuneful) city that has seen its foreign-born population roughly double in a decade. That reflects a broad trend: millions of migrants, most of them Hispanic, have moved to the South and Midwest in recent years, flocking to small towns and rural counties that last saw hefty in-migration in the days of crinolines, carpet-bags and spats.

After a thoughtful speech defending immigration (“It keeps us young, and it keeps us invigorated,” he said), Mr Obama took questions. Nashville’s Hispanics love you, began his first questioner. Then came a tougher query. If the next president scraps the new executive action, will those who use it to seek temporary work and residency papers be first in line for deportation? Mr Obama’s answer, simplified, was: there’s safety in numbers.

A permanent immigration law passed by Congress would be much better, the president said—but even temporary papers should be politically hard to reverse. He added an interesting caveat, though. Local governments, churches and community groups need to sign up more than “just a few people in a few pockets”. Mr Obama’s answer is revealing. Republicans in Washington, DC may be enraged at being side-stepped by Mr Obama, and seem set to stall any congressional action on immigration until he is out of office in 2017. But for all that, the president is wagering that the country at large realises that something must be done to regularise a migrant population that they see all around them, at school gates in conservative small towns, cheering on youth soccer teams in suburban parks, and filling hard, low-paid jobs in states of every ideological hue.

Go back just a few years, and the idea that migrants might find safety by showing their strength would have sounded risible. Nashville is a laid-back place: a tourist-friendly Democratic-voting dot in the middle of the conservative Bible Belt. Even so, its calm was tested when migrants began arriving in large numbers a generation ago, swelling a once-titchy foreign population centred on Kurdish refugees and Japanese car executives. City- and state-level politicians vied to restrict migrant access to public services. They tried to use everyone from police to schools to track unlawful residents, speeding their deportation. There were calls to “demagnetise” Tennessee as a destination. In 2009 a referendum was held on making Nashville “English-only”, which would have barred the city from offering foreign-language information, services or even interpreters (it was voted down).

Activists remember a dark period. In 2008 the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition counted 65 anti-immigrant bills proposed in the state legislature. Migrants recall fear, too. Karla Ruiz, a Mexican caterer, remembers driving her young (American-born) daughter in terror that even a burned-out brake light might trigger a police stop and immigration check leading to her deportation. Karl Dean, a Democrat who has been Nashville’s mayor since 2007, admits to a period when Latinos “felt they couldn’t engage with the police or city government”.

Yet that period from 2009-11 now looks like a high-water mark for nativism. Local firms campaigned hard against Nashville’s English-only proposal: with a global brand, Nashville cannot be “narrow” in its thinking, explains Ralph Schulz, president of the chamber of commerce. This year the Republican governor, Bill Haslam, has declined to join 17 other states in suing Mr Obama over his executive action. The governor is no liberal squish: he just has other priorities, starting with inward investment and upping the number of Tennesseans who go to college.

Change can even be detected in the state legislature, where Republicans hold crushing, three-to-one super-majorities in both houses. The flow of kick-’em-out bills slowed in 2012 and 2013. In 2014 a Republican state senator from Chattanooga, Todd Gardenhire, easily passed a law clarifying that Tennessee’s public universities can admit American-born children of undocumented parents at the same discounted rate as other local residents. He could not pass a more ambitious bill, offering in-state tuition rates to kids who came illegally as children and who do well at school, but Mr Gardenhire vows to try again. In the past five years some 18,000 Hispanic families have headed to his district, he reports, many after neighbouring Alabama and Georgia passed “draconian” laws. Yes, they arrived illegally, but that is no reason to “punish kids”, argues the senator. “They are here, and they are trying to do their best.” To date, lots of his colleagues are “afraid” of challenges from the right in party primaries. But, he says, they know that educating youngsters makes “economic sense”.

Welcome to Nashville

City politicians, school officials and activists talk of a tipping point. With one-in-eight Nashville residents now foreign-born, and one-in-three local children living in a bilingual or non-English household, the city cannot simply wish newcomers away. Ms Ruiz reports that American friends may disapprove of Mr Obama’s executive action, but they are happy for her that it will secure her legal papers. Mayor Dean goes further, drawing on the age-old traditions of American civic boosterism. Thanks to its ethnic diversity, “Nashville is a much more interesting city,” he says, with a “buzz” and an “energy” that bodes well for the future. In a highly mobile country, if people pick Nashville, that is “the highest compliment they can pay,” he adds.

That is a very American statement. It puts timid, grudging politicians in other rich countries to shame. Mr Obama has taken a gamble that the nationwide spread of migrants helps the cause of immigration reform more than it harms it. Tennessee’s example suggests he might be right.


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