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Impasse on Immigration

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: July 25, 2006

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The year began with immigration at the forefront of national debate. But as Congress prepares for its summer recess, the issue has been relegated to town hearings where debate has degenerated into partisan and bicameral disputes. Anyone wondering whether field hearings (AP) scheduled by House Republicans would spur compromise was set straight by the title of the first session: "Should We Embrace the Senate's Grant of Amnesty to Millions of Illegal Aliens and Repeat the Mistakes of the Immigration and Control Act of 1986?" House GOP officials see electoral gains in sticking with their bill stressing tough enforcement measures (The Hill), and they are also buoyed by moves in at least thirty states this year to crack down on illegal immigration (USA Today). House Republicans have scheduled three committee meetings this week dealing with border security and immigration.

Lawmakers from both parties agree immigration reform is urgent to deal with the estimated twelve million illegal immigrants in the country and concerns that the porous U.S.-Mexican border can be exploited by terrorists. But the proposed Senate measure, which enjoys bipartisan support, would provide a path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants in the country. The House bill, meanwhile, seeks the ultimate return of illegal immigrants and extensive border security measures. Rep. Thomas Tancredo (R-CO), a leading exponent of the House bill, tells CFR.org enforcement of U.S. immigration laws is ultimately essential to preserving U.S. national identity. The Bush administration, which supports the comprehensive reform approach of the Senate, has already moved to toughen border controls (WashTimes). This Backgrounder explores the alternative approaches to immigration reform.

Even a unified Congress would have trouble solving the illegal immigration issue. A recent debate between Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute and Stephen Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies highlighted some of the disagreements about the overall impact of immigration. Another Manhattan Institute senior fellow, Steven Malanga, writes in City Journal that legal and illegal immigrants currently flowing into the United States tend to be less skilled and educated than past immigrants, posing longer-term challenges to the economy. The Wall Street Journal's John Fund endorses a "rational" guest-worker program, saying an enforcement-only approach is doomed to the same failure as the decades-long "war on drugs."

CFR senior fellow Jagdish N. Bhagwati says there is no alternative to accommodating the current pool of illegal immigrants, but new legislation should focus on helping them integrate better through programs such as teaching English. The cost, he says, should be shared by Mexico. But Mexico itself represents another complication in the immigration reform debate. The country's recent presidential poll remains unresolved. Whoever emerges victorious faces a weakened capacity to push through reforms that could ease immigration pressures, writes CFR senior fellow Julia E. Sweig in a new Washingtonpost.com "Think Tank Town" dispatch. A recent CFR special report on Mexico suggests that Washington reach out to Mexico's new president as a partner and offer assistance in areas such as police training. The report says Mexico, which receives almost all of its nearly $25 billion in annual migrant remittances from the United States, should reciprocate U.S. offers by seriously cooperating on immigration.

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