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Illegal Immigration and the 2012 Campaign

Author: Shannon K. O'Neil, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program
February 16, 2012


Editor's Note: Shannon O'Neil is Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and publishes the blog, Latin America's Moment on Follow her on twitter @latintelligence.

As the country begins to turn to the general election next November, immigration remains a difficult issue for both political parties. During the early Republican primary debates, candidates talked enthusiastically about mass deportations and expanding, doubling, and even electrifying the U.S. southern border fence to keep people out. As the field has narrowed, the leading contenders have continued with a hard-line. Romney in particular, though widely seen as a centrist candidate, has taken an unyielding stance on immigration, supporting Arizona's and Alabama's restrictive laws and aligning himself with their architect - well-known anti-immigrant official Kris Kobach.

The tone got so strident in the lead up to the Florida primary on January 31 that Florida Senator Marco Rubio (who many say is a potential candidate for Vice President) chastised the Republican candidates for "harsh and intolerable and inexcusable" anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The Democratic Party's discourse has been more measured. Though all condemn illegal immigration, most speak of immigrants as "folks ... just trying to earn a living and provide for their families," no different from so many forebearers. But in concrete terms, President Obama has little to show immigrants - and more importantly Hispanic voters - from his three plus years in office.

During his time in the White House he failed to pass the Dream Act (which would give undocumented individuals that came here as children the chance to come clean by enrolling in a college or enlisting in the military), much less a more comprehensive immigration reform. What the administration has done is increase deportation to record levels, though now it is working to remove otherwise law-abiding, unauthorized individuals from the deportation queue.

These conflicting positions and heated debates show that the politics of immigration has changed little since the failed 2007 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, championed at the time by Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain. Yet immigration itself has changed dramatically.

For over a decade, Mexicans have represented roughly a third of all U.S.-bound migrants. In the mid-2000s roughly half a million Mexicans joined the U.S. population each year (fairly evenly divided between legal and illegal entries). But since then, migration from our southern neighbor has declined greatly, to the point that in 2011 net inflows neared zero. The change isn't only happening with Mexican migrants. Inflows from other countries such as China, and the Philipines show declines as well.

Many factors are behind this shift. One is economic - the downturn in the U.S. economy and economic resilience in other places has altered the cost-benefit analysis of leaving home. Particularly in countries such as China, India, Korea, and Brazil, anecdotal evidence suggests that economic growth is luring back migrants, who bring with them new skills and resources.

The decline in migration also comes in part from increased border enforcement. Since 2004, the border patrol has doubled to some 20,000 strong, with annual budget outlays reaching nearly $3.5 billion. The increased manpower have made at least some immigrants think twice about facing the mortal danger of crossing through the desert.

But perhaps the most important shift, at least for Mexican immigration, is demographic. Forty years ago, the average Mexican family had six children. This number dropped steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s, until by the turn of the 21st century they averaged just over two per family (similar to the United States). This means that going forward, each year fewer Mexicans will be coming of age and looking for jobs. Combined with rising high school and college enrolments, fewer Mexicans need or want to come to the United States - a trend likely to continue for the forseeable future.

This doesn't mean that U.S.-bound migration will end, as economic opportunities and family ties will still draw many north. It also doesn't apply to every country. Flows from Central America, Africa, and from other places around the world continue unabated. But it does fundamentally change the nature of U.S.-bound immigration, likely permanently. This has yet to feed into U.S. political debates.

Politicians today are looking for ways to attract the now over twenty million potential Hispanic voters, roughly 10 percent of electorate. Both Republicans and Democrats face challenges in rallying this growing demographic. Republicans need to cut into Obama's wide margin (more than two-thirds) among Latino voters, finding some way to gain their trust and backing. Democrats need to get out this favorable Hispanic vote, as they are still the least likely of the main ethnic groups to go to the polls.

Latinos have the potential to swing a close election. In fact, some analysts suggest that Obama will likely win or lose a second term based on the turnout and electoral support he gets from this constituency in the battlegrounds of Florida, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. And though surveys show that Hispanics care most about the economy, education, and healthcare, immigration matters to them as well - particularly when it stirs worries of broader discrimination.

Whoever wins, the real challenge for tomorrow's President will be how to deal with the fundamental shifts within the U.S. migrant population. Changing the rhetoric is a necessary start. Some politicians do see this.

During a CNN debate on national security, Newt Gingrich said "I don't see how the party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter of a century." But others don't.

Mitt Romney's "self-deportation" solution to illegal immigration ignores the underlying reality - that millions of America's undocumented immigrants have deep roots in American society that go far beyond employment. They won't voluntarily leave behind their families and their lives, even if they lose their jobs. Only by reframing the debate can America hope to find a sustainable solution that balances economic needs, family and community ties, and respect for the law.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Shannon O'Neil.

This article appears in full on by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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