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Prospects for Immigration Reform

Created: 12 February, 2010
Updated: 13 September, 2023
4 min read

New America Media

Given the jockeying that goes on to get mentioned in a State of the Union speech, it is not surprising that insiders pushing the immigration reform agenda celebrated success. Their issue made it into the speech, reaffirming that the president’s commitment remains alive and well.

Outsiders, however, were disappointed and displeased because the call “to continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system” fell far short of the rallying cry they wanted to hear. The blogosphere kicked into high gear, mostly pronouncing immigration legislation dead for 2010.

That a single sentence at a precarious political moment could be seen so differently is a fitting metaphor for assessing the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform in 2010. This latest round has again delivered a glass-half-full, half-empty outlook.

On the half-full side, there is the new importance of bipartisanship as the platform for progress in the wake of the Republican Senate election victory in Massachusetts. Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) continue work on a bill that they hope to introduce as a bipartisan measure.

Immigration legislation would always have required bipartisanship because at least a handful of Republican votes were needed to pass a bill in the Senate, even with Democrats holding a 60-vote edge. That is because several Democrats oppose key provisions supported by the majority in their party. What has changed is that immigration now becomes a more likely candidate for action because it can win adherents from both sides. In the search for problem-solving elected officials can take home to voters for the fall elections, immigration represents a new target of opportunity.

For those who see the glass as half-empty, jobs and the economy are the central issues. Recession dominated the nation’s policy agenda in 2009. President Obama has pushed economic recovery and employment for the middle class to the forefront of his agenda, as support for a health care bill has faltered.

A key question going forward is whether recovery will bring with it a return to the labor market demand of the boom years, or whether a more fundamental economic realignment will emerge that generates less immigration demand, particularly for low-skilled workers, who have been largely unauthorized.

The recession has interrupted historically high immigration levels – legal and illegal – that had been underway for almost two decades and has sidelined the public controversy generated by large-scale immigration for the moment.

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However, continued high unemployment and slow job growth are likely to make some of the main goals of immigration reform – legalizing unauthorized immigrants and providing for future flows of needed workers – even more controversial.

In principle, steady-state legal immigration and reduced levels of illegal immigration present an opportune time to develop and implement meaningful reform suited to the new century and economic recovery. In practice, legislation that embraces immigration has generally been enacted only in times of growth and a sense of domestic well-being.

Thus, continued high unemployment and deep political divisions on immigration within each party, as well as between them, mean that immigration reform faces strong headwinds. The chances for action are likely, therefore, to dwindle as congressional Democrats become increasingly unnerved about the party’s eroding popular support at a time of deep economic distress.

While politicians, pollsters, and strategists debate next steps on immigration, another pivotal moment in the life of the nation will take place. In April, we will take the decennial census and update the nation’s population estimates. Among many other things, the census could lead to a redistribution of congressional seats among the states.

As the most dynamic aspect of U.S. population growth and change, immigration will be one of the headline stories of the census. It is all but certain to be a story of continued and increasing diversity and historically high immigration levels that will shine the light from another angle on the deficiencies of the laws and policies that govern a vital element of the nation’s narrative looking ahead.

Yes, it will take serious bipartisan effort to fashion an immigration reform and system that works for all who have a seat at the table. But the longer the glass is perceived as half-empty, the longer U.S. economic growth and competitiveness, national security, and the well-being of communities and individuals – native-born and immigrant alike – will be handicapped, while at the same time they are increasingly important demographically and politically.

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