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No Real Differences Between Presidential Candidates on Immigration

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"On Immigration, Obama and Romney Agree on Virtually Nothing," declares a recent ABC News headline. The story strings together quotes from President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney to argue that the two candidates stand for widely disparate views on deportation, the DREAM Act, border security, and immigration enforcement. Yet, by uncritically citing campaign rhetoric, the piece obscures the fact that both candidates accept the basics of the legal status quo.

Obama wants drones and a border fence. Romney wants drones and two border fences. Obama deports the most immigrants ever. Romney wants to make sure he includes children in the exit line. Romney wants to allow states to enforce immigration laws. Obama wants to force them to. Romney wants more immigration regulations and sanctions for employers. Obama has already created more and set the record for sanctions.

Both candidates consider sacrosanct the fundamentals of America's dysfunctional immigration system--quotas, detention, and deportation. Rather than "virtually no agreement," what we find is slight differences in degree. Unfortunately, you rarely see headlines like "Presidential Candidates Agree on Virtually Everything." The illusion of partisan conflict sells better.

The Christian Science Monitor doesn't engage in the hyperbole of ABC News, but a recent article, "Obama vs. Romney 101: 5 ways they differ on immigration," might lead some to believe the candidates fundamentally disagree on the  five issues--comprehensive immigration reform, the DREAM Act, deportation, border fence, and employer sanctions. But Romney and Obama both advocate sanctions, fences, deportation, and even documents for "DREAMers."

Although they have a stated difference on legalizing other undocumented aliens, the practical difference is nonexistent. Consider that the president blames his failure to submit an immigration bill in his first term on Republicans "walking away," but in 2009 and 2010, Democrats had large majorities in both houses of Congress, so GOP support was not necessary. The president seems to indicate that even if GOP support is not needed after the election, he will again decline to push for a legalization bill. In other words, at the practical, rather than the rhetorical, level, the two candidates are virtually indistinguishable.

The immigration debate highlights a larger truth about America's two major parties--administrative priorities, not principles, distinguish them. Neither party objects to quotas, detention, deportation, surveillance, national identification, conscription of employers, regulations, sanctions, nor the other draconian features of America's immigration bureaucracy. The status quo legal institutions have the full support of both parties' political establishments: their practical differences amount to little more than tinkering around the edges.

Because the narrow battle lines drawn by the major parties receive all the media attention, the gap between the country's "major issues" and its real world problems grows daily. The immigration system's major problem is that its restrictions create huge incentives to immigrate illegally. Yet the debate has not focused on addressing this issue, but on perpetuating the notion that somehow more money, more guards, more prisons, more penalties, and more laws will fix it.

The solution to illegal immigration is simple: legalize immigration. This does not mean eliminating borders, creating easy citizenship, or destroying our sovereignty. It means an orderly and accessible process for entry, something that does not exist today. Wait times for family-sponsored green cards from Mexico stretch over a decade, and employment-based green cards for low-skilled workers are limited to 5,000, or 0.075% of the number needed to cover all undocumented immigrants from Mexico. This means, for most immigrants, there is no option for legal entry.

The political establishment's strategy, it appears, is to make the U.S. such an inhospitable place to live that immigrants will not want to come. Perhaps that will someday work, but why would we want it to? Why should we destroy what America stands for in order to prevent others from participating in it? Why is exclusion so noble a goal that it merits separating parents from children, tearing apart families and communities, and turning this country into a surveillance state?

As long as journalists accept the political establishment's battle lines, marginal differences balloon into polar extremes. The reality is that little separates the two parties. The fundamental changes America needs will only be implemented if we reject such a narrow policy debate and demand real options.