America Wrestles with Immigration Reform

by Michele Wucker

Despite the United States’ reputation as a nation of immigrants, it is as undecided as many other countries in the world are about what policies to best handle record immigration.

United States lawmakers can agree on only one thing about what to do about immigration: something must be done. Eight of ten Americans polled this spring by the daily newspaper USA Today and the Gallup Organization said that illegal immigration is out of control; more than nine in ten want Congress to do something this year. 

But what and how? Should the estimated 12 million illegally present immigrants be allowed to stay and work toward citizenship? Should they be allowed to stay but not get citizenship? Should they be deported? Should America build a fence along its borders? Should it bring people in as guest workers or provide a way to put down permanent roots?

Hard-liners do not want to consider any programs to legalize immigrants who have come illegally, or to provide additional visas so that workers needed in the future can come legally, “until the border is secured.” But to pragmatists on the other side of the debate, it is clear that until immigration laws more closely match the country’s labor needs, it will be impossible to secure the border.

Hard-liners argue that limiting legal immigration will help existing immigrants assimilate more easily once the corrupting influence of their homeland is reduced. But pragmatists understand that forcing a large part of the population to live in legal limbo also damages their prospects for becoming part of American society.

Responding to the urging of President George W. Bush, who has made immigration a priority issue, and to American’s clear desire for a solution, the House of Representatives and Senate both recently passed bills on immigration. The two houses of Congress now are deadlocked over the most fundamental questions of how to combine their contradictory pieces of legislation into a new version that could be signed into law.

What they share is a plan to put in place an electronic verification system so that businesses could reliably verify if workers are authorized to work. There would be harsh penalties for hiring undocumented workers, unlike today, when enforcement is limited at best.

The House has proposed an enforcement-only solution that would penalize immigrants who are not lawfully present, and would not solve the fundamental issue that created the huge illegal population: that there are not enough visas for the workers the country needs to come legally. It would build a 698-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Republican leaders of the House have said that they will oppose any proposal that would have involved any kind of “amnesty” allowing undocumented immigrants to earn a path to citizenship.

The Senate would allow the undocumented workers who have been in the United States for more than five years to earn legalization by paying back taxes, learning English, and undergoing a security check. Those present for more than two years but fewer than five would have to return briefly to their country of origin as well before gaining legal status. It would build a shorter fence along the border. The Senate also would provide an additional 220,000 work visas a year, which could allow more people to come legally.

Neither side includes significant –and much needed—proposals on changing the way visas are allotted, largely through regional quotas and a family-based preference system. Nor do the existing bills address the need to reform a bureaucracy that is so deeply inefficient that applications frequently are lost and in some cases even highly skilled workers must wait five years for work authorization that is not through a temporary guest-worker program.

With mid-term elections coming up in Fall 2006, politicians on both sides are weighing whether it makes more sense to anger voters by doing nothing, or by passing a law that will anger those on both sides of the issue.

To understand the options on the table today, some history is instructive. Each time immigration-related demographic pressures have peaked, the country has delayed any solution for too long. This is because immigration is such an emotional issue that politicians fear that any policy will mobilize extremists who will vote them out of office. Typically, policy does not change until the situation becomes so explosive that to do nothing would be even more dangerous politically. As a result, America’s policies toward immigrants that often go from one extreme to another, and often achieve exactly the opposite of what they were intended to do. 

After the Great Wave of immigration from Europe that took place from 1880 to 1920, Congress reduced immigration quotas, drastically slowing the flow of migrants. In 1965, a new reform opened the doors so wide that a dramatic increase in immigration eventually created a new demographic crisis similar to the one that had prompted the closing of the doors in 1920. By imposing new quotas on Western Hemisphere immigrants, it also ensured that a large number of Latin American immigrants would no longer be able to enter America legally.

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act tried to address the new population surge by providing amnesty for nearly three million illegal immigrants and supposedly establishing penalties on businesses that “knowingly” employed undocumented workers. But that law was passed only because it included loopholes that supported a tacit understanding that it would not be strictly enforced. Indeed, because it did not provide a legal way for businesses to get the new workers they needed, the law proved to be a disaster.

The result was a new population of roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants, and an anti-immigrant clamor the likes of which had not been heard in nearly a century. The most vocal opponents blame immigrants for everything from traffic congestion to crowded schools to overseas outsourcing. Books have become best-sellers for warning that immigrants threaten to destroy American culture, values, and society. “Minutemen” vigilantes took patrolling the border into their own hands.

In this poisonous environment, too many politicians fear being pegged as “soft on immigration” –even if their hard-line stance would create more problems than it solves. But the polls do not bear them out. Surveys consistently show that a majority of Americans support allowing those who now are here illegally to become citizens, especially if they meet a set of requirements like holding a job, speaking English, paying back taxes and fines for having come illegally, and passing a security and background check showing that they do not have a criminal past. 

Despite the sensible leanings of the majority of Americans, politics have been dominated by extremists, who are more likely to mobilize campaigns against politicians they deem to be too favorably disposed toward immigration. In a country where voter participation is low, particularly in years when there is no presidential contest, electoral victories often go to the politicians who simply can get the largest percentage of their existing base to actually go out and vote. This skews policies toward the extremes.

This tendency explains why every time America has made a significant change to its immigration policy, it has been enacted based on emotion instead of common sense. History does not provide an encouraging outlook.


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Michele Wucker directs the Program on Citizenship and Security and is co-director of the Immigrant Voting Project, both at the World Policy Institute.