November 24, 2004


Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Is It Within Our Grasp?

By Angela Kelly
Deputy Director
National Immigration Forum


Washington D.C. – This (past) weekend, President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox held talks in Santiago, Chile at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. The topic of immigration reform came up with no breakthrough. It is high time for the key actors – the Bush Administration, the Fox Administration, and, most importantly, the U.S. Congress – to move beyond vague assurances that migration is “on the table,” and take concrete steps to solve our pressing migration and border issues.

The Right Political Moment

Fresh off of his reelection victory, President Bush has declared that he has earned political capital he intends to spend. Led by Bush, the Republican Party made huge gains in attracting Hispanic and immigrant voters. Now those voters are anxious to see whether the trust they placed in the President will be rewarded with a recognition of how much immigrants contribute to the country, the sacrifices they make for their families, and the dignity they seek as participants in America’ s future.

Jobs, education, security, and health care continue to be the issues that motivate immigrant and Latino voters, but immigration remains a defining issue for many. Will the President take on the harshly anti-immigrant, anti-reform wing of his own party and promote comprehensive immigration reform that addresses the needs of America’s economic and national security? We hope and expect that he will, but it will not be easy. Nor can the Republicans do it alone. They will need genuine bipartisan support to pass a reform package.

In many respects, the quest for comprehensive immigration reform legislation is in the President’s hands. While Mexico’s President Fox has staked a great deal of his reputation on improving relations with the United States, the impetus for reforming America’s immigration system has moved beyond the discussions Fox had with Bush beginning in 2001. Mexico can play a constructive role by demonstrating their sincere interest towards cooperating with the U.S. on border security, hemispheric anti-terrorism measures, and improving its domestic economy to reduce migration pressures over time. However, the prospects for real reform – and therefore real security and economic improvements – sit squarely with President Bush and his leadership on the issue.

Signs that Bush is Serious 

Beginning with Secretary of State Powell’s cautious but unequivocal statements in Mexico on November 9 that the conditions for addressing immigration reform have improved in the United States, the White is sending all the right signals that it is serious about making immigration reform a priority.

Perhaps more important are two events that attracted less press attention. First, White House strategist Karl Rove, meeting with reporters to debrief after the President’s victory, identified immigration reform as a top priority of the President’s second term. Equally encouraging are press reports of a private meeting the President had with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a real leader on immigration reform. Sen. McCain, a border state Republican with a reputation for getting things done in a bipartisan fashion, is precisely the right person to enlist to develop and promote the President’s intention to reform immigration.

The Problem: The Status Quo is Broken 

The measures put into place over the past 15 years – with the vocal support from the anti-immigrant chorus in the U.S. – have clearly failed. Employer sanctions, increased border patrols, streamlined deportations, workplace raids, curtailed access to the legal system, and reduced access to basic public services were all supposed to curtail unauthorized migration from Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere.  Instead, the biggest crackdown on unauthorized migration in recent history coincided with the biggest increase in the size of the undocumented immigrant population in American history. Proposals to do more of the same, or to round up and deport millions of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., are unworkable and un-American. It has become painfully clear that antiquated U.S. immigration laws and enforcement strategies are no match for the 21st century, and indeed, create unintended consequences: millions of workers in the shadows and vulnerable to exploitation; decent employers undercut by unscrupulous competitors; a ballooning unauthorized immigrant population that relies on false documents to get jobs and get by; a $10 billion a year human trafficking industry increasingly controlled by crime syndicates; and 2,000 deaths at the border over the past five years.

The Paradigm for the Debate is Shifting

Business, labor, religious leaders, immigrant communities, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents increasingly recognize that the status quo is untenable. Instead of a naïve and unsuccessful drive to stop illegal immigration unilaterally or drive more of it underground, the challenge is now becoming how best to manage our borders securely and efficiently, regulate migration realistically and effectively so that our laws are enforceable, and over time, reduce the push pressures that drive Mexicans and others to migrate to the United States.

This will be impossible to achieve unless the U.S. government tries something new: bring U.S. immigration laws into line with U.S. economic realities. The long term demographic and economic trends are unmistakable: the home-grown workforce of Americans is inexorably declining. Immigrant workers have become an essential aspect of a labor market projecting a deficit of workers for decades to come. The problem, then, is not bad people violating good laws, but good people frustrated by bad laws.

It is counterintuitive for many Americans that reducing illegal immigration requires us to make legal immigration a more viable option for employers, families, and individual immigrants. But our immigration regulatory regime, most of which dates from the 1960s, is no match for the realities of the 21st century labor marketplace.

Which Way From Here?

The time has come to move beyond pabulum and platitudes and get about the business of building towards long term comprehensive reform. In combination, the following elements are increasingly viewed as the best hope for making migration safe, legal, orderly, and over time, rare, instead of deadly, chaotic, and inevitable:

Ø More worker visas: People come illegally because negotiating the legal immigration system is next to impossible for so many immigrants and the employers who hire them. There-fore, the U.S. must develop “break-the-mold” temporary worker programs to widen legal channels for the future flow of needed workers. 

Ø More family visas: Millions of immigrants have been waiting patiently for legal immigration, but unless we reduce backlogs for close family members waiting to be reunited within realistic and enforceable limits, the incentives to immigrate illegally are too attractive.

Ø Path to permanent residency: Create legal channels for undocumented immigrants and their families already established in the U.S. to come forward and obtain legal work permits. If it is to work and be sufficiently attractive to undocumented immigrants to participate, it must include a meaningful path to permanent residence over time for those who choose to make America their home.

  Ø Realistic enforcement: The realities of a global war on terror require the U.S. to take control of our borders and free up scarce enforcement resources to detect and deter real national security threats. When more of the immigration flow is directed through legal channels, our border and interior security resources can focus in on those who choose to come but who cannot tolerate the rigors of close scrutiny. This is vital if we are going to target bad actors such as criminal smugglers and unscrupulous employers.

Ø Protect American and foreign-born labor: Any temporary worker program must ensure that the rights of workers are protected, that immigrant workers are not used as a wedge to drive wages down, and that basic safeguards in the workplace are enforced.

  Ø Address root causes: Get serious about cooperating with Mexico and other sending countries not only on security and enforcement concerns, but also on trade, aid, and remittance-related initiatives so that over time migration pressures from sending regions might be reduced.

The American people want to know who is in the U.S., who is coming to the U.S., and that the federal government is minding the store. Our current strategies are failing to do so. The time has come for leadership from the Bush Administration and Congressional leaders from both parties to take concrete steps now on our way to addressing the regional migration and border security challenges in a comprehensive fashion.

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