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Making Immigration Work

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
October 17, 2006

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With a few weeks to go before midterm elections, the congressional debate on immigration policy essentially has been reduced to a security issue. But postelection it is likely to resurface as an economic one. Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Tamar Jacoby sees the security-focused debate as a temporary sop to an agitated minority of the U.S. population. But after the elections, Jacoby writes in a new article for Foreign Affairs, consensus should move toward comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for some of the country’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. One chief reason, she writes, is an emerging shortfall in unskilled labor in important sectors like the construction industry and the restaurant business, adding: “Even if Mexico were to become Switzerland overnight, the fact is that the United States would still lack unskilled laborers and would have to find them elsewhere.”

In sectors such as agriculture, there are reports that tougher border security and a crackdown on illegal workers has hampered farmers’ ability to get their crops in (MSNBC). And Stephen G. Bloom, observing conditions in rural Iowa, says illegal immigrants have become essential to carry out the unsavory work in slaughterhouses. Without them, he writes in the Wilson Quarterly, “the U.S. meat-processing industry would grind to a halt.”

Such considerations contributed to President Bush’s appeal earlier this year for a “rational middle ground” on immigration reform. The U.S. Senate’s proposed measure, which has Bush’s blessing, would set out a series of restrictions on illegal immigrants depending on their length of stay in the country but in the end would set up a route to citizenship for many of them. Georgetown public policy professor Harry Holzer told the Senate Judiciary Committee last spring such a move was unlikely to cause a stampede of new illegal immigrants given the high level of motivation for migration that already exists. But a number of critics of this approach label it an outright amnesty, an approach that failed to work when adopted in 1986. A leading opponent, Rep. Thomas Tancredo (R-CO), told CFR.org that provisions in that bill for cracking down on worksite violators were never observed. “The reason you have to have the enforcement part first is because I don’t trust the administration to ever do the enforcement part if you give them any sort of guest worker opportunity,” Tancredo said. Many House Republicans support a bill that seeks the return of illegal immigrants to countries of origin combined with extensive border security measures.

The issue has proved especially divisive for Republicans in border states such as Arizona, writes Joseph Lelyveld in a New York Times Magazine piece. Conservative Pat Buchanan has also stirred comment across political lines in a new book warning that excessive immigration from Mexico is leading to cultural rifts in U.S. society (FOX).  

Experts say any serious immigration reform effort will have to involve improved U.S.-Mexican coordination to be successful. A CFR special report on Mexico suggests that Washington reach out to Mexico’s new president as a partner and offer assistance in police training. The report urges cooperation from Mexico as well but says the country lacks the resources and political will to stem illegal immigration north, a situation that likely won’t change for years. The independent Migration Policy Institute shows the vast scale of U.S.-Mexican interaction along their border.

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