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A Migrating Problem

Author: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
February 13, 2007


Last year's heated congressional debate on immigration reform ran up against the midterm election campaign, resulting in a law narrowly focused on security measures that did not address the larger reforms many believe to be necessary. What's more, the main feature of that October 2006 legislation—a 700-mile fence (Dallas Morning News) on the Mexican border—drew questions about its feasibility and now faces an uncertain future. But as the 110th Congress returns to the drawing board on immigration reform, lawmakers face new circumstances that offer hope as well as challenges for revamping the unwieldy U.S. immigration system, reviewed in this new Backgrounder.

The main change is the composition of Congress, now dominated by Democrats seemingly more aligned with the Republican president on immigration than the House Republicans formerly in the majority. President Bush listed immigration as one of his top domestic priorities in his 2007 State of the Union message, generating applause from Democrats when he mentioned resolving the fate of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants and temporary worker programs. Some see the mood as ripe for thorough immigration system reforms, concluding the November elections amounted to a repudiation of the get tough approach (Reason) of House Republicans. Others say it is difficult to draw connections between immigration issues and voting patterns (PDF), even among Hispanics. A number of experts say Democratic support for sweeping reforms is anything but automatic, noting party ties to labor groups that are wary of offering too liberal temporary worker provisions.

Democrats may also have to contend with charges they are too soft on security and illegal immigrants, says CFR Senior Fellow Edward Alden says in a new Podcast. "I think if the Republican minority goes after this aggressively and tries to paint Democrats as the party of amnesty, that's where you run into problems," he says. They will also be mindful of the "Hazleton effect"—since the northeastern Pennsylvania city last summer sought to crackdown on landlords and companies that aided illegal immigrants, scores of communities in 27 states have signaled similar measures, according to the Associated Press. Victor Davis Hanson of City Journal cites growing unease (Investor's Business Daily) in the country over illegal immigrants now that they have spread from the southwest of the country to "Home Depot parking lots in the Midwest, emergency rooms in New England and construction sites in the Carolinas."

But advocates of comprehensive reforms regard it as essential for American competitiveness that Congress move beyond merely erecting walls to tackle immigration in an efficient, humane way. Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Tamar Jacoby notes federal labor statistics showing the U.S. economy is expected to create 56 million new jobs by 2012, many of which will require unskilled immigrant labor (Foreign Affairs). A bipartisan task force organized by the Migration Policy Institute wants to set annual legal immigration levels (PDF) at around 1.5 million, and is calling for the creation of a "Standing Commission on Immigration and Labor Markets" to make recommendations to Congress biannually. It also calls for a major simplification of a system that currently assigns seventy-two different types of nonimmigrant visas.

Others see opportunity in the recent presidential changeover in Mexico, source of the vast majority of illegal immigrants in the United States. Although it is unrealistic to think new President Felipe Calderon can alter conditions enough to change the flow of migrants in the near future, a recent Council Special Report on Mexico says the United States should begin taking more steps to stimulate the Mexican economy. "If the United States is serious about reducing migration from Mexico, it should help Mexico create the 500,000 new jobs needed each year to employ its would-be migrants," the report says.

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