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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Immigration Reform: Is it Next?

With the health care battle over (except in the courts), the next public policy emphasis on the part of the Obama Administration seems to be job creation but the ever present immigration issue is looming in the background. Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) want to sponsor a "comprehensive" bipartisan immigration reform bill. The use of the adjective "comprehensive", is usually employed by advocates of a liberal immigration policy including an "amnesty" for the millions of current illegal residents. This is to distinguish the proposed policy from a more simple "enforcement" policy. However well intentioned, the prospects for Schumer-Graham effort are not good.


The current congressional political environment remains caustic and conservative members are energized by political polls showing general support for the Democrats at all time lows. Speaker of the House Pelosi had said she won't schedule an immigration bill until the Senate actually passes one which would be the basis for a House bill. In other words she “passing the buck”. But the other familiar contentious issues remain the main obstacles.

1. The legal status for currently residing illegal's remains the biggest problem. Solutions range from registration, fines and going to the back of the line for permanent residence status and eventual citizenship to an immediate amnesty and procedures for citizenship application. No one knows the actual number of resident illegal's and estimates range from 10 to 14 million.

2. The level of enforcement at the borders is the subject of much debate. The recent murder of an Arizona rancher on his border property by an illegal who was tracked back to Mexico has prompted calls for the deployment of the National Guard. Arrest and detention and deportation policies are controversial. The recently constructed 600 miles of border fence itself was controversial.

In terms of politics, the issue is complicated by the rapidly growing Hispanic population who are voting citizens and their current political orientation. It is significant that the 23 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are all Democrats. In the 2008 election Hispanics voted for Obama 67% to 31% for McCain. Hispanics supported Democrats for Congress 68% to 29% for Republicans. During the Bush Administration Republicans initiated an outreach to Hispanic voters with some success but these gains were all lost in 2008. Republicans who wish to, can read the demographic projections that will make a renewed outreach imperative in order to keep their party competitive in the future. This makes harsh opposition to "comprehensive" immigration reform a self defeating strategy. Some kind of support for dealing with the existing illegal residents will be necessary while maintaining traditional Republican advocacy for tough border control measures.

The recession has shown that a loss of job availability reduces the incentive for illegal immigration and indeed the Pew Hispanic Center cites data that indicates that illegal immigration from Mexico from 2008-09 was down 25% from previous levels. The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that the illegal immigrant population has actually decreased by @ 1.7 million for the period 2007-08 as unsuccessful job seeking immigrants returned home. If true, these statistics give strong support for the proposal for a national "identity/work" card; a kind of tamper proof Social Security card which combined with strong penalties for hiring workers without them, would significantly reduce the immigration problem. Of course, the American Civil Liberties Union, ever eager to protect our privacy rights, no matter how fanciful and whether we want them to or not, has already voiced its opposition and threatened legal action. However, the biggest legislative issue however remains the Republican balancing act that will be required. This and the Democrats reluctance to take on another highly controversial issue in the run up to the 2010 elections might simply keep the issue off the agenda for now.  However, it's an issue that won't go away and will have to be addressed before the 2012 elections.

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