The changing demographics of the United States, with fewer workers and more retirees, should compel Washington to make comprehensive immigration reform a top policy priority, says former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, co-chair of the Council of Foreign Relations Task Force on U.S. immigration policy. As Congress begins to look again at reform, a number of significant hurdles will impede reform efforts, Bush says. But he adds that conditions for creating a legal and economic system to overhaul immigration policy are slightly more promising than past attempts. "We have to have a legal system of immigration that accounts for the fact that we have fewer workers that are producing the resources to take care of a growing number of people who aspire to be retired," the former governor says. "There’s no possible way we can sustain our entitlement programs without having a strategy in place that recognizes that the legal flow of immigration matters."
Immigration reform is back in the news. Members of Congress met at the White House in late June to discuss the issue. Congress has tried a number of times in the last few years to reform immigration. Why has it been so difficult?
I would say the principal problem is a lack of confidence that the federal government was capable of protecting the borders. We’ve had immigration reform every decade. Commitments were made about enforcement, and clearly they haven’t [been] delivered. So there’s a lot of frustration, a lot of anger regarding that and that has made comprehensive immigration reform difficult. The last two efforts, while they got very close, broke down on that basic point.
Today the conditions are a little different because there has been a major effort to enforce the border, particularly the Mexican border. There’s been a significant deployment of border patrol agents, [and] there is new technology that now is on the border between Mexico and the United States. There is evidence that there are fewer people crossing. So that creates an opportunity.
What has to happen to get things going in Congress this term? Are there still big hurdles to overcome?
There are some significant hurdles. It’s very complex for starters. It’s not a simple policy discussion. The [Council on Foreign Relations] Task Force has made a series of very thoughtful recommendations. If you read them in their totality, you get a sense that this is a very complex issue. We have to reform the administration of immigration flows; we have to reform the legal immigration system that is quite cumbersome; we have to deal with employer sanctions in a different way; and [we have to] deal with the very difficult issue of what to do with the twelve million people that are here illegally--what means will they have to be able to find a path of legalization? So it’s very complex, and anything this complex makes it difficult. When you combine that with the fact that the Obama administration has embarked on some incredibly complex initiatives beyond immigration related to climate change and health care and trying to deal with a down economy, all of this makes it quite difficult to imagine this happening immediately.
You’ve been part of the CFR Task Force on immigration reform. There are several other reports out there. Many have called for things like tougher border enforcement, finding a path to citizenship for those here illegally, allowing families to stay together, and loosening caps for skilled-worker visas. What’s in this report that goes beyond these standard recommendations?
We have to have a legal system of immigration that accounts for the fact that we have fewer workers that are producing the resources to take care of a growing number of people who aspire to be retired.
Given the fact that this was the Council on Foreign Relations, there was an emphasis on how immigration is an important foreign policy issue, not just a domestic policy issue. There are significant things we can do to enhance the position of the United States around the world. For example, the visas that allow foreign students to come into the United States--we’ve lost a bit of our market share in the last four [or] five years, because of security issues. The Task Force recommended a pretty dramatic extension of [student visa stay lengths] and that makes all the sense in the world. That’s just but one example of how you can enhance the foreign policy interests of the United States by changing the immigration laws and policies to make sure we have more interaction with the next generation of opinion leaders and leaders of countries.
Apart from that you have the economic issues. It’s important to recognize that given the demography of the United States, we’ve got to get immigration right. We have to have a legal system of immigration that accounts for the fact that we have fewer workers that are producing the resources to take care of a growing number of people who aspire to be retired. Given the birth rates of the U.S. population, there’s no possible way we can sustain our entitlement programs without having a strategy in place that recognizes that the legal flow of immigration matters. These are issues that really are not typically topical when you hear the conversations on television, or when you hear the conversations in Congress, but they’re important.
What happens if there’s no reform?
We miss an opportunity in the foreign policy arena. We certainly miss a huge opportunity as it relates to the competitive posture of the United States. One of the real weapons we have in competing economically is our ability to absorb immigrants--legal immigrants--that make huge contributions to our country. And then we ignore an issue that needs to be solved, which is what do we do with people who are here permanently, who have made contributions, who if given a path to citizenship would do what’s right and take the necessary steps to achieve legalized status and citizenship. We just can’t ignore these problems.
The Task Force report talks about U.S. immigration as a key component in the economies of developing countries, especially through remittances. Can you talk a little bit about what’s working on the development side and what still needs to be accomplished?
Particularly in Mexico and Central America there are push factors that, if they were mitigated, would have a dramatic impact on illegal immigrants for sure. So if Mexico could develop a long-term strategy with the United States -- certainly not dictating on how to do this but playing a supportive role to expand economic opportunities for those that are forced to leave to be able to provide for their families--that would have a very positive long-term impact on the border issues that are a huge challenge for Mexico and certainly a challenge for us as well.
The point the report makes [is] how important remittances are for our neighbors. It’s the largest export for every one of the countries other than Mexico, and it’s a huge number for Mexico as well. Recognizing that and recognizing the importance of the region for our security, as well as our long-term economic interests, is important. My personal belief is that we save jobs by having stronger economies in Central America and Mexico. That [in] the United States, our workers benefit when there are growing economies because we’re their largest trading partner, [and] the ability for the United States to be competitive with other regions in the world is directly related to how successful Central America and Mexico are in terms of creating policies that on a long-term basis will create sustained growth.
There are some labor groups who complain that illegal immigrants drive down wages for low-skilled workers in the United States. Economists differ on how true that claim actually is, but the perception remains, and a similar argument is made about trade. What do policymakers need to do to overcome fears about influxes of cheap labor and goods into the United States?
One of the real weapons we have in competing economically is our ability to absorb immigrants--legal immigrants--that make huge contributions to our country.
I’ve seen studies that make the exact opposite cases on both those subjects. So I’m not sure that’ll ever be resolved. People seem to have a conclusion and then work backward to find ways to justify that conclusion. In my mind, the best way to lessen people’s fears is to educate in tangible ways--to show how cooperation economically creates opportunities for both sides. It’s not a zero-sum game. If you look at trade and economic development as a threat, I would say the threat would be larger from Asia. Together the United States and Mexico and Central America can create a win-win, and avoid significant dislocation of investment, plants, and equipment for jobs that we’ve seen go to China, for example. A case has to be made that it’s in the United States’ interest to have a stronger growing relationship with our neighbors to the south. The net benefit of that is you would see a subsidence of immigration flows, but equally important it would allow us to remain competitive in an increasingly competitive world.
What’s your feeling on the border fence? What image does it project to the rest of the world and how effective do you think it’s going to be?
The fence in certain areas has proven to be effective and more appropriate to protect our borders for national security purposes. But there are other options that make a lot more sense. Using technology, for example, [and] greater cooperation between Mexico and the United States will yield a better result. Clearly the image of having a fence in the minds of people outside of the United States is a negative one. No doubt about that. So recognizing that, finding other options where appropriate makes sense. That’s what we proposed here. This report does a good job of describing the need to continue the efforts on border enforcement. In order to create a climate where comprehensive reform can happen, there needs to be a continued effort on protecting the border, and the means by which we do that need to be based on the conditions in those localities. I don’t think it should be a fence across the entire border because [it] makes us look strong, or whatever the advocates have claimed. Nor do I think we should ignore the protection of the border. We should use the proper means based on the conditions on the ground.
Is there anything else in this debate that you think has harmed the U.S. image?
It’s been a domestic policy issue, highly politicized, where the tone of the debate has not yielded the kind of climate to get something done. That’s where the focus needs to be: to lessen the emotions of this and look at the clear need for us to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. I can’t tell you, to be honest with you, how much people are watching around the world on this. The fact is that our immigration policy has been a huge benefit to our country [in the past] and to get it right gives us a competitive edge economically, and it also helps our country to continue to be dynamic, ever-changing in a positive way. In the long run, this is really important for our country to get right and that should be where the focus is. I worry less about what people think of us than how effective our policies are.