What’s Happening with Immigration Reform?

March 19, 2010
Guest Post

By Maurice Belanger, Director of Public Information, National Immigration Forum
This weekend, tens of thousands of activists will be in Washington demanding that Congress fix an immigration system that is dysfunctional.

What's this about?

The Immigration System, and Why It's Broken

Most foreigners coming to live in the U.S. come here in one of three ways: through close family ties, through employer sponsorship, or as a refugee. The family-based and employment-based systems have fixed quotas for immigrant visas that were last updated in 1990.

In the ensuing 20 years, those quotas have not kept pace with demand. As a result, there are now extraordinary waits for families to reunite and for workers to get their "green cards." Currently, an immigrant living here who is trying to bring a spouse or minor child must wait between four and five years. Others wait longer.

For some categories of immigrants, the prospect of legal immigration is even more unrealistic. For example, there are only 5,000 visas available per year for low-skilled immigrants who, during the late 1990s and parts of the last decade, were being absorbed by our economy at a rate of 300,000 to 500,000 per year. If all of those immigrants "got in line" for a proper visa, the waiting list that would develop in one year would span one human lifetime.

It's not hard to understand, given the above facts, that a lot of people in the last 20 years have found a way around the immigration system. Before the economic downturn took hold, there were an estimated 12 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. Unauthorized workers made up five percent of the U.S. workforce.

Fixing the Broken System

Advocates on the National Mall this weekend will be calling for "comprehensive immigration reform." Broadly, this reform consists of, first, some sort of process by which unauthorized immigrants are brought out of the shadows, register, and get a criminal background check. Those who have no criminal record will be allowed to attain legal status, putting them on a path to citizenship. Second, family visa backlogs must be cleared, and admissions levels must be adjusted so that long backlogs to not immediately re-appear. Third, there must be some way to match the number of workers coming to the U.S. with what is happening in the economy. Fourth, there has to be an effective, intelligent enforcement scheme, prioritizing the worst violators of immigration and labor law. Enforcement must respect the due process rights of all, and it must be accountable. Comprehensive immigration reform will also include measures to speed the integration of immigrants.

Immigration Reform and Economic Recovery

Given that unauthorized workers make up five percent of the U.S. workforce, immigration reform will be an important component of our economic recovery. With that many U.S. workers subject to deportation, there are plenty of opportunities for unscrupulous employers to offer substandard pay to unauthorized workers. This hurts all U.S. workers. Bring unauthorized workers into the system, and they will be more willing to stand up for the rights they have under our labor laws. The "wage floor" will be raised for all U.S. workers. The Center for American Progress estimates that comprehensive immigration reform will result in a $1.5 trillion boost to the economy over a ten year period. By contrast, the economy would take a $2.6 trillion hit over ten years if we were to send all unauthorized workers packing.

Going forward, we had better make the adjustments in our admissions systems before the economy recovers. If the economy returns to anywhere near where it was in the 1990s, we can expect the number of unauthorized workers to climb steeply.

Good Policy and Good Politics

For reasons described above, comprehensive immigration reform is good policy. It is also good politics. When voters are asked about their views on comprehensive immigration reform, and the elements are described to them, about two-thirds support it. (You can find polling info here.) For Latinos, immigration reform is particularly important. The harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric of many Republican politicians is credited with their poor performance among Latino voters in the last two election cycles.

Republicans worried about the long-term future of the party are nervous about the continued harsh rhetoric toward immigrants and Latinos. If they cannot attract more Latino voters (the fastest-growing segment of the electorate), Republicans will have an increasingly difficult time fighting for majority status.

In the near term, though, Democrats have a problem. Many Latino voters in the last election were first time voters. They were inspired to make a trip to the polls by promises that new leadership would fix the broken immigration system. With elections looming, an immigration reform proposal hasn't even been introduced. Democrats don't have a lot to fire up Latino voters for a repeat performance. 

[image via fromthevaultradio.org]