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Presidential Campaign Should Address Immigration Reform

Susan Martin

June 14, 2011 The United States has a long and complex history in respect to immigration laws and reform. Lawmakers on the state and federal levels still grapple with balancing ways of allowing people from other countries to apply for U.S. citizenship without burdening the resources available to all Americans. Some states, most recently Alabama, now have laws banning businesses from hiring, landlords from renting and schools from teaching illegal immigrants. Immigration scholar Susan Martin says only Congress can tackle the problems within the current immigration system. Martin, the Donald G. Herzberg Chair in International Migration, says this highly emotional issue is unlikely to be the subject of any legislative action before the 2012 presidential elections. But she says immigration reform is an issue Obama cannot afford to ignore during his campaign. 

Why has immigration reform remained such a challenging issue?

Immigration reform is always difficult in the United States. The United States had no significant federal regulation of immigration until 1875, when the importation of contract labor was barred. Numerical quotas on immigration were not enacted until 1921, when highly discriminatory national origins quotas were put in place to stop immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Efforts to overturn the national origins quotas were not successful until 1965. We had no comprehensive refugee policies until 1980, did not enact the first major piece of legislation to curb unauthorized migration until 1986, and there were no major changes in our family and labor migration policies between 1965 and 1990.

So it is not surprising that it is taking a long time to arrive at comprehensive immigration reform today.

What do you see as the main challenges?

Part of the problem is that immigration is a highly emotional issue. We as Americans tend to look back fondly on our own immigration past, but we’re suspicious of the new immigrants. This ambivalence goes back to colonial days and has persisted throughout our history.

Also, immigration makes strange bedfellows. Social liberals and free-market conservatives come together in support of high levels of immigration, but they often fall apart when discussing the rights of immigrants, particularly their access to social benefits.

Labor unions have often joined with social conservatives to stop increases in the numbers of immigrants to be admitted but also split on rights issues. These coalitions can generally stop laws from passing, but it is much harder to build the constituency for comprehensive reform.

Do you think immigration reform is a primary focus for the Obama administration?

I think the administration is sincere in supporting comprehensive immigration reform – meaning a combination of enhanced enforcement against illegal migration, legalization of the unauthorized migrants already in the country and new immigrant admissions policies to meet labor demand.

Going into the 2012 election, though, the Obama administration needs to show the large and growing Latino population that it is not ignoring its needs. I don’t expect much legislative activity on immigration, but I do expect that the administration will use its executive authority to lessen the pressure on immigrant communities. There is a great deal of concern about enforcement measures that break up families.

It would not surprise me if the administration suspends enforcement actions against students who would have received legal status under the DREAM Act, which failed in the last Congress but has had broad bipartisan support. [The DREAM Act, an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, would provide conditional permanent residency to certain illegal and deportable immigrant students. Temporary residency is contingent on completion of two years in the military or two years at a four-year institution of higher education.]

States are instituting their own laws for reform. Can you talk about that?

The proliferation in state legislation is a mark of dissatisfaction with the status quo and the inability of Congress to pass meaningful reform. Interestingly, there is as much legislative activity at the state and local level to help immigrants as there is to curb unauthorized migration into their jurisdictions.

For every Arizona or Alabama, with highly restrictive legislation, there is a Maryland that is trying to make it easier for students without legal status to go to college at in-state tuition rates or a Utah that tries to create its own temporary worker program. Most of this legislative activity on both sides of the issue does not get at the root of the problem. We have a dysfunctional legal immigration system that does not respond to the needs of the U.S. labor market and keeps families separated because of lengthy backlogs and long waiting lists.

Only Congress can fix what is wrong in the overall immigration system. The restrictive policies may shift some illegal immigration from one state or locality to another. The more generous policies still do not address the legal status of the undocumented migrants.

What is it going to take to achieve comprehensive immigration reform?

It will take improvement in the economy and the political will to tackle a difficult set of issues.

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