The president said this about immigration: “We are creating a whole society of really honorable, decent, family loving people who are in violation of the law.” But it wasn’t President Barack Obama.

It was future President George H.W. Bush speaking in a debate before the 1980 Texas presidential primary. He said people who have come here to work shouldn’t be treated like criminals. His opponent, future President Ronald Reagan, jumped in, not to slam Bush for being soft on immigration, but to agree with him.

“Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we talk about our mutual problems (with Mexico) and make it possible for them to come here legally and work here,” Reagan said. “(Illegal immigration) is the only safety valve they have right now.”

Thirty-four years later, the voices of those now-former presidents seem strangely out of step with all the nearly hysterical rhetoric being thrown around the subject of immigration. On Thursday, President Obama said words very similar to those spoken by Reagan and Bush, and took actions consistent with some they took during their presidencies, when he announced that the executive branch would temporarily defer deportation for certain groups of undocumented immigrants.

In response, Republicans in Congress are talking about shutting down the government or impeaching the president. Moderate Sen. Susan Collins is more critical of the president than she is of her Republican colleagues, who have blocked legislative action. Independent Sen. Angus King says he is concerned that the president’s actions will make it difficult to get Republicans in the House to negotiate, something that they have been unwilling to do for the last two years.

No one benefits from this political polarization about an issue that should be a matter of consensus. People want to come to America for a better life; there is work for them to do here that makes our economy more productive. These are things to celebrate.


But immigration has been turned into a hot-button issue even in Maine, where we suffer from too little immigration, not too much. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, there are fewer than 5,000 unauthorized immigrants in the entire state. The same study estimated that about 0.02 percent of Maine’s students have an unauthorized immigrant for a parent. The potential cost of providing general assistance for unauthorized immigrants has been estimated at $1 million a year. That’s about 0.02 percent of the state’s annual budget.

These low numbers don’t mean that this is an unimportant issue, but they provide much needed context. Maine is not overrun by “illegal immigrants” who are burdening our social services. For people escaping tyranny or poverty in their home countries, this politically motivated fear of strangers has a profound effect. It also wastes everyone’s time fighting about emotional issues instead of the state’s more pressing economic problems.

Both Maine’s senators are seen as leaders who can negotiate reasonable compromises. Now is the time for that kind of leadership. They should stop chastising Obama for doing the right thing, and work with their more intransigent colleagues.

Maine and the nation need the inflammatory rhetoric to recede and reasonable policy to move forward.

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