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Immigration Solutions

By Marc Seltzer; originally published May 12, 2009, at care2.com

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Last month, after President Obama announced the beginning of a discussion on immigration reform, I wrote a blog discussing the fundamental political conflict at the heart of the matter:  Legalization for twelve million or so immigrants, whose status is currently illegal.

The two solutions offered by opposing sides are:  (1) strict enforcement of current law, leading to deportation of the illegal work force and those family members without legal residence; or (2) legal status and a path to citizenship with a fine for breaking the law.

The first option is not realistic because of the human costs, economic disruption and political beliefs of the majority of Americans and their representatives.  Those who see this as a black and white issue, where illegal means “no rights” are missing the historic context of a nation built on immigrants and hard work, not entitlement and status.  It’s not that illegal immigration is right, it’s that this solution is not right.  The nation may or may not be capable of policing its borders, but it is not capable of ten million deportations.

The second option is essentially the same “Amnesty” program that was implemented under President Ronald Reagan, with the addition of a potentially significant fine to punish and discourage the immigration law violations.

There has not been much discussion of the fine or potential restrictions of this type of legalization.  This may be where there is some room for compromise.  There is no reason that the fine could not be substantial, that the path toward citizenship could not be long, or that some immigrants could not be put in legal worker programs, where they would not be entitled to a path to citizenship without further application along with other non-resident applicants.

A stricter, more “punishing,” legalization program would serve to discourage illegal immigration in the future, especially if legal quotas for immigration kept up with the labor needs of U.S. employers and employers who broke the law were sanctioned.

If the second option (legalization) can be achieved politically, then the 12 million people who can take advantage of the program will come out from the shadows of the law and establish legal identities in the American system.  If this option cannot be achieved politically, the status quo may continue for another period.  This option has many negative consequences.   For the illegal residents, they suffer exploitation and lack of legal participation in the society in which they live.  Society loses their number in the census, in some tax collection and public allocation of resources.  Unfair competition with the legal workforce is also a problem.

So far, anti-legalization forces have not shown an interest in creative compromise.  It’s time they did so.  The failure to enact legal reform does not create a better real-world solution.  Helping to create an immigration program for the future that is realistic and firm is the best way to get the legal framework in line with an enforceable legal reality.

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.