By the standards of the recent debate, Obama's speech laying out his approach was a radical shift: it was largely about immigration, rather than meta-immigration. It was about policy rather than process. And it was about immigrants rather than border security.
Obama is shifting policy in a direction that is more favorable to immigrants for a simple reason that few politicians dare utter: because he believes immigration is good for America. He began with the thought that immigration "has given us a tremendous advantage over other nations" and ended with the notion that a welcoming attitude toward immigrants is "a tradition we must uphold."
This might seem like an obvious rhetorical strategy for a pro-immigration president. But it's actually newer than you might think.
Border security and the path to citizenship
Dating back to the Bush-era immigration reform push, the political project of immigration reform has been a somewhat awkward combination of lenience and stringency. Comprehensive reform was meant to both help unauthorized migrants already living in the United States and crack down on future unauthorized border crossings. And, indeed, the comprehensive reform bill the Senate passed in 2013 featured genuinely massive investments in border security.
The result was a piece of legislation that, according to the administration-friendly analysts at the Center for American Progress, would actually have reduced the total flow of immigrants into the United States of America.
There was always a certain kind of narrow political logic to this double-emphasis. The two loudest voices on immigration issues were unauthorized migrants, and xenophobic nativists. So a traditional legislative logroll attempted to meet both worries simultaneously. Forgiveness paired with a promise to be harsher in the future. This was the formula behind the successful 1986 amnesty law, and behind the failed legislative efforts of 2007 and 2013. Obama's executive action is different.
The steps he is taking to help immigrants don't go as far as congressional action would have gone, but border hawks are really getting nothing at all. This is structurally typical of how GOP political tactics interfere with conservative policy outcomes, but very atypical for the American immigration debate. Obama is doing something to help immigrants not as part of a 11-dimensional effort to secure the border, but because openness to immigration is a source of American national strength.
A new pro-immigration politics
On the merits, the case that policy should be favorable to immigrants because immigration is good for America is strong. Economic research shows that immigration raises incomes for native-born Americans. Immigrants create new businesses at much higher rates than native-born Americans — a particular boon amidst a slowdown in the rate of new companies being formed in America. Immigration reduces the risk of secular stagnation. It increases the sustainability of Social Security.
Many people profess to find these arguments contrarian or counterintuitive. But when we remove nationalist blinders, I think they become obvious.
States like Texas that are enjoying high levels of in-migration from the rest of the USA don't try to keep domestic migrants out. Nor do they regard migrants as crippling their local economies. Nor does the national policy consensus hold that people having babies is some kind of macroeconomic disaster. A growing population is rightly understood to be both a cause and consequence of prosperity. A modern economy is made of people, and the ability to attract and retain new people is a source of economic strength.
This is why in some ways the most exciting parts of Obama's immigration proposals are the ones that have thus far been least-debated — the ones pertaining to legal migration. The details of these initiatives are not yet fully clear. But it seems Obama will make it easier for foreign-born recent graduates of US universities to get permission to stay and work here. He's also looking to "streamline" the process by which companies can get L-1 visas to bring foreign managers here. He wants to make it easier for recipients of H-1B technology guest worker visas to also work in the United States, and he has an as-yet-unexplained plan to "expand immigration options for foreign entrepreneurs."
In other words, he wants to be nicer to otherwise law-abiding unauthorized migrants with roots in the United States and he wants to open the door to more immigrants.
Can it work?
It should be said that there's no great mystery as to why pro-immigrant politicians have generally not taken the straightforwardly pro-immigration approach. The view that the United States would benefit from more immigration, though correct, is consistently unpopular. On the other hand, when you ask Americans how many immigrants they think are already in the country they wildly overestimate, telling pollsters 32 out of 100 people in the country are immigrants. The correct number is 13. As if often the case, the public turns out not to have a detailed understanding of a policy issue.
And the steady upward trend in the size of the minority calling for more immigrants is interesting, especially because no nationally prominent leaders have given voice to that view.
Thursday night, speaking from essentially a position of political desperation, President Obama became the first major politician to do that. With legislative options dead, and inaction politically untenable, he made the case that hadn't been front and center in the past decade of "immigration reform" debates. That having people move here for school and work and to raise families makes us stronger and richer as a country. That we should welcome immigrants not as part of an elaborate border-security scheme, but as a good in and of themselves.