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Since the majority of Americans favor comprehensive immigration reform, why are Congress and the administration lagging behind?

Question submitted by Elva Cutri, from Anaheim, California, June 20, 2013

Answered by: Jagdish N. Bhagwati


There is often no correlation between what public opinion polls say the majority favors and the legislation that representatives enact.

The problem with current efforts toward comprehensive immigration reform, as with the earlier Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (the last legislative success on immigration reform), is that the United States is trying to enact a bill that caters to many conflicting views and interests. This slows down the process and also produces unwieldiness and compromises that can make a mockery of the word "reform."

In particular, the bills currently winding their way through the Senate and House are built on the illusion that some combination of incentives and punishments will "solve" the problem of having illegal immigrants in the United States. The hope is that the ultimate bill would reduce new illegal inflows to negligible levels while also decimating the eleven million illegal immigrants already in the United States by giving them amnesty (or what is euphemistically called a "legalization" process to citizenship).

Neither assumption is realistic. Unions will not accept substantial inflows of workers for fear that this will harm local workers' wages. Similarly, the restrictions being put on amnesty for current illegal immigrants are so draconian that many will refuse to come out, just the way it happened in 1986 (when only half of the estimated six million illegal immigrants opted for it). Thankfully, the United States will not shoot at people coming across the desert: neither humanity nor politics will permit U.S. border patrols to do that.

What we is needed, therefore, is to accept the fact that the United States will continue to have illegal immigrants in large numbers within its borders. Why not then shift the lens and turn to reforms that are designed to treat them with humanity?