Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 2012

As a result of growing gridlock, Congress has failed in three major areas that affect the U.S. economy: immigration reform, national energy policy, and transportation funding. Immigration reform is the most politically sensitive in this election year.

In late April, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Arizona versus the United States that goes to the heart of our constitutional system: federalism, the relationship between the federal government and the fifty states.

The Arizona case brings to the fore the question of a state government's authority to enforce state law when the federal government fails to act in an area that the state considers crucial to the well-being of its citizens.

Congress's inability to agree on comprehensive immigration policy leaves to the states the major task of coping with approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants who are in the United States illegally and who severely strain state and local budgets and often jeopardize public safety.

Immigration reform, unfortunately, has become a political football in Washington. Congressional. Democrats favor a more liberal pathway to citizenship for those who have resided in the United States illegally for at least ten years. Republicans generally take the view that “illegals” should return to their homeland, then apply for legal residence here.

The issue was exacerbated in the 1990s and early 2000s when tens of thousands of Mexicans crossed the border illegally in search of work during an employment boom in the United States. Now, many are reportedly returning home as the U.S. economy falters.

The court's decision, expected in June, intersects three key aspects of both domestic and foreign policy: the authority of the federal government, the role of the states, and relations with an important neighbor, Mexico.

The justices will decide whether Arizona's tough law on apprehending illegal aliens conflicts with the federal government's constitutional authority to regulate immigration. Judging by the justices' questions during oral arguments, many experts believe the court will uphold Arizona's right to ask suspected persons for proof of citizenship, and arrest those who cannot show they are in the country legally.

If that is their decision, many states are expected to join five others that already have passed laws similar to the Arizona statute. Opinion polls in those states show clear public support for measures to check residents for their legal status.

Congress is unlikely to pass immigration reform in 2012. Democrats hope to capitalize on the issue's impact in the Hispanic communities in key electoral states, such as Florida, Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, and California. The Hispanic vote may influence whether President Obama wins reelection and helps Democrats increase their representation in Congress.

Republicans calculate that Hispanic voters are more influenced by the poor state of the economy and continuing high unemployment.

If Congress unexpectedly decides to enact interim immigration reform this year, one option is to provide legal status, but not citizenship, to those young persons who were brought here illegally by their parents and are now gainfully employed. This is a less permissive version of the so-called Dream Act, favored by Democrats, but is attractive to some Republicans and many undecided voters.

In foreign policy, the U.S. treatment of undocumented Mexicans who crossed the borders of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and California is a cause of continuing criticism from the governments of Mexico and others in Latin America. The border fence erected by the United States during the past decade, and the harsh treatment given many of those apprehended, is a cause of resentment by ethnic Mexicans on both sides of the border. Many Americans think the fence is contrary to American values.

At the root of the immigration debate is the question of governance in the United States: Who has responsibility for the safely and economic well-being of citizens when the federal government fails to provide them in its area of constitutional authority?

My view is that the fifty states should have this residual responsibility. For that reason, I hope the Supreme Court upholds the main features of the Arizona law but rejects its more punitive features. This outcome might then spur Congress, in its next session, to be serious about compromising around a more comprehensive solution to this vexing immigration dilemma.

File last modified on Wednesday, 16-MAY-2012 4:00 PM EST

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