New presidential terms are an exciting time. They bring surprising new haircuts, shocking new scandals and everyone’s favorite: thrilling new legislative agendas that will inevitably get scaled back when they come face-to-face with the harsh realities of American politics.
What’s the deal with immigration?
It depends on what you mean by immigration. Usually, when an American politician talks about “immigration reform,” they are really referring to illegal immigration from Mexico.
Let’s first take a look at data from the Pew Hispanic Center. According to Pew, there are roughly 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States. That number includes immigrants who came here legally and have outstayed the term of their visa (for that reason, this article will use the more accurate “undocumented immigrants” instead of “illegal immigrants”).
The other side of immigration reform is enforcement. Generally, enforcement takes two forms: keeping people from entering the United States illegally and deporting those who are found to be here illegally. Department of Homeland Security publications claim that in 2011 there were 641,633 aliens apprehended by Customs and Border Protection, while 391,953 aliens were “removed” (DHS-speak for deported) from the United States.
Yeah, “aliens” sounds weird, but it is the correct legal term.
How does this compare with years past? Are there more undocumented immigrants now?
Though recent emphasis on the issue may lead you to believe otherwise, the United States is not facing a net increase in the number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico. A recent report from the Pew Hispanic Center concludes that the net migration flow from Mexico has actually hit zero. There may actually be a net emigration of Mexican migrants.
This has a lot to do with the economy. A Gallup poll last year found that the United States is the most popular country for potential migrants. The report noted that migrants generally travel to other countries in search of financial opportunity, which is harder to find these days. For many undocumented immigrants, being unemployed at home is less dangerous and stressful than being unemployed in the United States. This means that the flow of immigration may resume as the economy improves, though that remains to be seen.
So what plans are being advanced for immigration reform now?
There are currently two separate plans proposing comprehensive immigration reform. The first was unveiled by a bipartisan group of senators in late January, while the second was proposed by President Obama literally the next day. President Obama would’ve actually liked to be first on this one, but he had the moment snatched out from under him.
The two separate plans are actually fairly similar, and a consensus on immigration reform can be pulled from them. Both plans want immigration reform in four parts.
First, both plans want to legalize the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and give them a path to citizenship. It is logistically unreasonable to expect the United States to deport 11 million people. Even if we were capable of it and had enough boots on the ground, it would still never occur. Deporting 11 million people does not look good on the international stage.
Second, both Obama’s plan and the Senate plan call for an improved immigration system in the future. Neither plan is clear on what such a system would look like, how it would work or what it would do. This goal is so nebulous that discussing it is difficult without an actual bill.
The third component in both plans is increased border security. We’ll address the necessity and usefulness of increased security later.
The final part, which is present only implicitly in the Obama proposal, is a system of guest-worker visas. Again, we'll address this further down.
Really? You’re just going to skip past suddenly legalizing 11 million people?
Funny. Seriously, when did that become a fact of immigration reform?
When there were 11 million people living without authorization in the United States, legalizing them became a necessity.
It is not practical to deport every undocumented immigrant. So instead of putting time and resources into prosecuting them, it is far easier and cheaper to simply legalize them. Both plans provide for penalties of some sort (back taxes, basically), and then puts undocumented immigrants at the back of the line for citizenship.
There are some issues with that approach. Professor Jacqueline Stevens, who teaches with the political science department at Northwestern and is director of the Buffet Center’s Deportation Research Clinic, points out that the current line for citizenship is ludicrously long. ”If you apply through the kind of program that the president is proposing for a path to citizenship, you’re going to the back of the line. And that line is currently approving people from 1993," says Stevens.
That issue aside, legalization of undocumented immigrants is likely to happen. It’s just a question of when and how.
Okay, so what’s the issue with border security?
American border security is already huge. Total spending on immigration enforcement exceeded the spending on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined last year. Immigration cases take up more court space than any other type of case the federal government prosecutes. Over the first term, the Obama administration deported 1.5 million undocumented immigrants.
The question is whether or not there will ever be enough border security to satisfy immigration hardliners. According to Geraldo Cadava, a professor in the history department who specializes in the history of the U.S.-Mexican border, the answer is probably no. Cadava points out that 40 percent of attempted illegal border crossings are successful, a statistic very worrying to some on the right.
Stevens says that constant number can never really change, and as long as it doesn't, immigration hardliners will never be happy. She points out that increased spending only goes so far. “We can put more and more money into border security, but the same technologies available to border security are available to people trying to come over," Stevens says. "People are coming over now in personal hovercraft, they’re coming over in small submarines. It’s impossible to outpace the people trying to come over.”
And what’s the deal with a guest visa program?
A guest visa program has some potential benefits and problems. Businesses – and business-oriented voices like the Wall Street Journal – frequently call for easier immigration. Immigration creates jobs and brings revenue and cheap labor. Business owners like the idea of guest worker visas. Cheap labor that doesn't risk a visit from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is a very attractive concept. And as Cadava points out, such a program has a historical basis and looks great in relations with Mexico.
On the other side of that argument are unions. Unions traditionally dislike cheap non-union labor, though lately they’ve had a change of heart. With their power dwindling, unions need immigrants to maintain their ranks. The AFL-CIO, the largest federation of labor unions in the United States, now calls for undocumented immigrants to be granted citizenship and for immigration to be streamlined. Unions are less interested in guest visas, as guest workers would be less interested in labor issues than permanent immigrants.
Stevens notes that such a system could lead to serious problems. Guest workers would not necessarily have all the same rights granted U.S. citizens by the Constitution, which means that the potential for legal issues is fairly high. She predicts that such a system will have to either become more open or end entirely. “It’s not in anybody’s interest to have a group of people in our borders with fewer rights," she says. "If you have a guest visa program large enough to be relevant from a policy point of view, you’ll create a two-tier legal system, and that’s not tenable.”
All right, that’s enough policy talk. Will it pass or not?
Probably. Republicans could have won the last election if they had done better in the Hispanic vote. Moving forward, they'd like to build a new base. Democrats, on the other hand, want to follow through on the promises they’ve been making for years.
Stevens, though, points out that Republican leadership is not the only aspect of the party that matters. For many Republicans, winning the Latino/a vote is simply not relevant in a home district with few Hispanic voters. Many Republicans know their constituents want enforcement, not reform. “Something will pass,” predicts Stevens. “But it will be more favorable to border security and private companies.”
Cadava, for his part, is more optimistic. Immigration reform may not come quickly, but seems to be a realpolitik inevitability.
“I think you can just be a sensible American in 2013 and think that it’s going to pass because it has to. It really has to. Too much is at stake for both parties to have it not pass.”