Immigration 2009

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on March 19, 2009 at care2.com

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No Easy Answers

The announcement that President Barack Obama will begin a public discussion of immigration reform in May will reawaken debate on a highly contentious issue.  At core, the issue pits those fiercely opposed to allowing illegal residents in the United States to convert their status to legal residency against those who, albeit with conditions, seek to legalize most of the U.S.’s estimated 12 million illegal residents.

Political Risks

If the President follows his campaign position in seeking a legislative solution that includes offering legal status to those in the country illegally, he will be investing his political capital in an extremely divisive issue at great political risk.

Prior to the 2008 election in which Democrats gained in both houses of congress, anti-illegal immigrant forces had the upper hand.  While Democratic gains make the congressional votes for reform more plausible, the economic crisis and growing unemployment will intensify concern that giving illegal residents the opportunity to obtain legal status will make already-difficult competition for jobs that much worse.

The President will have his hands full with this one and risks a political fight of an uglier, nastier and more divisive nature than even the financial turmoil has wrought.

Increasing Attention and Concern

The economic crisis and growing unemployment is likely to increase opposition to immigration generally and make compromise more difficult.  However, some commentators such as Thomas Friedman, in his NY Times column, have noted that allowing more legal immigration could bring wealthy immigrants eager to buy homes, shoring up the contracting real estate market.

Illegality is troubling, but what are the alternatives?

Illegal immigration presents the difficult combination of illegal entry into the United States, perceived competition for jobs, and use of public resources that is a too-bitter pill for many Americans.  Yet with nearly 12 million illegal immigrants residing in the United States, it is difficult to realistically imagine a solution that does not involve granting some form of legal status.

One approach would be to grant permission to work for a period of years, without giving traditional legal permanent residency, which begins a path towards citizenship.  However, advocates of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, recognize that people who have effectively moved to the U.S., will likely be in financial and family jeopardy if they are forced to leave after having lived for five, ten or more years in the United States.  This type of compromise has not received significant support from immigration opponents, either, who chafe at the idea of rewarding those here illegally with any form of legitimate legal status.

Reagan’s Leadership, or a matter of time?

One thing is certain, poor management of the immigration issue in the past has set up a nearly impossible predicament in the present.  Congress could have largely managed the issue by raising legal immigration quotas sufficiently to keep up with the needs of employers during the 1990s and first decade of the new century.   Instead, the demand for labor far outstripped the legal supply and the debate shifted to unrealistic proposals of effective border enforcement on the one hand and mass deportation on the other.

In the end, Obama’s political skill and the Democratic congressional majorities may forge a “legalization” solution, much as Ronald Reagan did in 1986.  However, the opposition will be charged, and losing control of the issue could not only lead to defeat of immigration reform, but chip away at the President’s momentum and, so far, commanding authority.  While both sides in the debate should compromise and seek to offer creative solutions to the real problems that exist, within their principles, there will be those primarily looking to use the issue against Presidential authority and to position candidates for the 2010 congressional elections.

What to expect, at least initially

President Obama will likely push for a legalization process that aims to implement legal status after the recession eases and the unemployment rate declines.  Mr. Obama is opening the debate in May, and it would not be a surprise for legislation enacted in 2009 or 2010 to provide opportunities for legal status in 2010, 2011 or 2012, when employment is predicted to increase, if the recession ends.

Any proposal is likely to impose penalties and conditions as an attempt to deal with and discourage “unlawful” entry and residence.  More today than in the past, surveillance technology at the border and electronic identification procedures in the workplace make future enforcement of immigration laws possible, although by no means guaranteed.

UPDATE: In Immigration Solutions I push towards a compromise and ask both sides if they are willing to meet half way.  Whether it was because his hands were full with health care of because the prospect for immigration reform legislation was not good, President Obama has put off immigration legislation for at least a year.  In a later post I will review what is going on in enforcement and changes that result from the economic downturn with respect to illegal immigration.

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