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U.S. Immigration Reform Will Happen—At Last

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
January 1, 2013
Financial Times


The November election had many consequences, but few may be as profound as its impact on the likelihood of immigration reform.

Why? It has a good deal to do with domestic politics. One out of every six Americans is of at least some Hispanic heritage. The Republican party will not continue to be a national party able to compete successfully in presidential elections unless it embraces a more open approach toward immigrants and immigration. It doesn't hurt that two potential Republican nominees in 2016 — former Florida governor Jeb Bush and current Florida senator Marco Rubio — are strong advocates of just such change.

Understanding the consequences of immigration reform for the US requires unpacking the issue into its three essential components. The first, illegal entry, has largely been resolved, the result of increased vigilance at borders, a slowed economy that offers fewer jobs, and smaller family sizes in Mexico that leaves fewer young men wanting to come to the US.

The second dimension is the most controversial: the state of the 11m people who entered or have remained in the country illegally. Forcing them to leave or "self-deport" as Mitt Romney put it is not a serious option. But forcing these men, women,and children to live in the shadows is inhumane and limits what they can contribute to US society.

Increasingly being talked about is a path to normalisation or even citizenship in which individuals — especially those who have jobs and some education, pay their taxes and have no criminal record — could, over the course of a decade or two, be able to stay legally and possibly become full citizens. Those doing public service could get there even sooner.

The third dimension of immigration is the least talked about but the most important for the country's future: legal immigration. What is being sought is increasing the number of people with advanced degrees and required skills who can enter and remain in the US. American competitiveness would surely benefit. Seen this way, immigration is less of a problem than it is a strategic instrument.

The arguments for reform are strong, but they have been for some time. What is new is the politics. Immigration reform is back on the agenda of the country of immigrants.

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