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Relighting Lady Liberty's Torch: Challenges to U.S. Immigration Policy

October 22, 2009 // 12:00pm1:15pm

On October 22, Wilson Center on the Hill in conjunction with the United States Studies Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted an event to explore the challenges embedded in US immigration policy. Director of the U.S. Studies Program, Sonya Michel, introduced the event by identifying several core questions at the forefront of immigration reform. How should U.S. immigration policy prioritize family unification, asylum for refugees, ethnic and racial diversity in the population, admitting younger workers to support the retirement of the Baby Boom generation and/or skilled workers to build a high-tech U.S. economy, and controlling immigration rates until American unemployment rates subside?, These questions are at the heart of immigration reform and get to the root of identifying the goals of U.S. immigration policy.

Mae Ngai, Professor of History at Columbia University as well as the author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, noted that the paradox at the core of current immigration policy is that the system of allocating visas is based on principles of "fairness and equality" nonetheless generates unauthorized migration. The current cap on the number of immigrants from each country is 25,620 people. While at a glance this policy may appear fair, immigrants from India, China, Mexico, and the Philippines are at a considerable disadvantage in comparison to less populated countries. The current "one size fits all" policy emerged from the Civil Rights era in tune with national mentality of equality. "Comprehensive immigration reform goes beyond the questions of legalization and enforcement," asserts Ngai, "and addresses the basic imbalance of supply and demand that is embedded in the very structure of our program." While enforcement is necessary, it does not prevent future unauthorized entrance.

Ngai highlighted three key policy ideas from history that may be helpful in reforming the current system. First, the statute of limitations in the Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants admitted from any country to two percent of people from that country already living in the United States. This follows the idea that those in the country, stay in the country. Second, Senator Philip Hart in 1963 proposed abolishing the national-origin quotas and allocating green cards according to the following criteria: 32 percent allocated based on relative size of the population and thus need, 48 percent allocated according to past immigration patterns and thus family relationships, and the final 20 percent awarded to refugees. Third, prior to passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, there were no quotas on Latino immigrants. Research has shown that more stringent regulation actually leads immigrants to stay in the U.S. permanently because they are afraid that, if they return to their home country, they will not be allowed back into the United States.

Arturo Vargas ,the Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), is a nationally recognized expert in Latino demographic trends, electoral participation, and voting rights. He argued that since the signing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 by Ronald Reagan, Congress and the Administration have not dealt with the reality of immigration. Lack of action, or even poor action, are "occurring against a backdrop of a steady, consistent political development and evolution of the Latino community and Latino immigrants."

Vargas identified the 1994 passage of Proposition 187 in California as one of the most defining moments in Latino political history. Proposition 187 would have denied benefits, such as education and health care, to anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant, even without proof. Though it was eventually ruled unconstitutional, Proposition 187 created political space for similar laws, such as the welfare reform excluding welfare to new, legal immigrants who are not citizens of the United States. These actions catalyzed a political movement in the Latino community in the 1990's that added an additional one million Latino voters to the rolls and converted California into a "blue" state.

One of the most significant factors motivating Latinos to naturalize and gain citizenship is the right to vote. A bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2005 which would have criminalized illegal immigrants in the United States as a felony violation was a particular challenge for the Latino community. It spurred millions of Latinos in urban and rural areas to march in the streets for equality and reform. Vargas' campaign in 2007, entitled "Ya Es Hora" (It's Time), tried to tap into this anger and fear in order to inspire the five million legal permanent residents in the United States to become citizens. An unprecedented 1.4 million became citizens in 2007, and one million of those voted in the 2008 Presidential election. Vargas stressed that while the immediate effect of an influx of Latino voters was to increase Democratic votes in the 2008 election, the past few Presidential elections show that the Latino vote does not favor one party over the other, but rather swings between parties depending on the issues and the candidates..

According to Ngai, the most significant obstacles standing in the way of U.S. immigration reform are the conflicting interests of immigrants, Americans concerned about job security, companies looking to bring in specialized workers, and the government. There are three lines of contention in the immigration debate: job security, the economic interests to recruit workers, and cultural issues. Vargas expanded upon hesitations embedded in culture to describe what he calls "the darker side of the American spirit." According to Vargas, xenophobia and fear of the unknown have fueled an irrational fervor in segments of the American public that has stood in the way of rational decision-making on immigration issues. Although the evidence suggests otherwise, beliefs rooted in fear have led opponents of expanding immigration to advocate more stringent enforcement and removing benefits in the belief that these actions will force immigrants to leave.

The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 would have provided legal status and paths to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants in the United States. Though it was sponsored by Senate powerhouses Ted Kennedy and John McCain and had considerable support from the public, the bill failed. According to the panelists, one key reason is the well-organized grassroots opposition fueled on xenophobia and concerns over job security. More accessible than national policy, immigrants became an easy target to displace economic frustrations. A prevailing, flawed idea in the public was that immigration is a sum-zero game – the idea that every opportunity provided to an immigrant represents an opportunity lost by a natural citizen. In addition, the issue was portrayed as a "Latino issue," and consequently lacked widespread American interest. Finally, because the bill was a compromise, it lacked the type of strong support that would have been necessary to overcome the strong opposition on the other side of the debate.

By Stephanie Grow
David Klaus, Consulting Director, Wilson Center on the Hill

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