March 15, 2007 | EPI Briefing Paper #186
Getting Immigration Reform Right
by Ray Marshall
Congress' difficulty in passing immigration reform legislation comes as no surprise to those who have followed this issue over the years, especially the debates that led to the seriously flawed Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. Many of the factors that caused IRCA to fail are as prevalent now as they were in 1986. Diverse economic interests, personal biases, and political ideologies make it hard to build consensus for effective immigration policies. These complications are exacerbated by the absence of reliable information about the magnitude of unauthorized immigration and its impact on the American economy and society. Unlike many other policy issues, there are no clear political alignments on immigration, making it difficult to build the coalitions needed to align the complex components of a successful immigration policy.
By the time IRCA was amended enough to pass the Congress, it became very clear to immigration experts that, instead of restricting their entry, IRCA would accelerate the flow of unauthorized immigrants into the United States, which is exactly what happened. Common estimates of the number of unauthorized immigrants in 1986 were between 3 and 6 million; today, estimates range from 10 to 20 million. The networks that give employers a dependable supply of unauthorized immigrant labor are much more institutionalized and difficult to control. If the United States does not get policy right this time, 20 years from now the number of unauthorized immigrants probably will have at least doubled and be even more difficult—if not impossible—to control.
That said, however, immigration is not the problem: the United States is and will remain a nation of immigrants, who have contributed greatly to the vitality, diversity, and creativity of American life. Immigrants are particularly important to the U.S. economy, accounting for over half of the workforce growth during the 1990s and 86% of the increase in employment between 2000 and 2005. Because there will be no net increase in the number of prime-working-age natives (aged 25 to 54) for the next 20 years, the strength of the American economy could depend heavily on how the nation relates immigration to economic and social policy.
Unauthorized immigration, on the other hand, subjects migrants to grave dangers and exploitation, suppresses domestic workers' wages and working conditions, makes it difficult to adjust immigration to labor market needs, perpetuates marginal low-wage industries addicted to a steady flow of unauthorized immigrants, is unfair to people waiting to enter the United States legally, and undermines the rule of law. The issue is not immigrants, but their legal status, characteristics, and integration into American life.
Because of its importance to America's diverse and rapidly growing Hispanic population, immigration also has significant political implications. Hispanics' political power is enhanced by their geographic concentration in areas where Democrats and Republicans must contend for national dominance, especially in the Southwest and Rocky Mountain West. This reality was an important component of the political strategy fashioned by George W. Bush and Karl Rove. During his first term, President Bush courted Latinos with a strategy that included speaking Spanish, Hispanic appointments to prominent positions in his administration, and an immigration policy that included a guest worker program championed by Mexican president Vicente Fox. The Bush-Rove strategy was derailed by nativist Congressional Republicans, who adamantly opposed comprehensive immigration reform in favor of exclusive reliance on border security.
Because of deep international economic and demographic integration, immigration has important foreign policy implications, especially for U.S. relations with Mexico, the source of most unauthorized migrants to the United States. In fact, for many years, Mexican policy has been based on the expectation of heavy migration to the United States. In the 1970s, for example, Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda (the father of former President Vicente Fox's first foreign minister) told us that, whatever we did, the United States would absorb a large part of Mexico's population growth. Many of us who were attempting to formulate policy for the United States did not want to believe that we would have so little control of immigration, but he was right.
Migration clearly is very important to Mexico: it provides a safety valve to compensate for that country's failure to provide adequate domestic jobs for most of its workforce growth, and remittances from the 20 to 25 million Mexicans living in the United States have become second only to oil exports as a source of Mexican foreign exchange. Remittances also are the lifeblood of many rural communities and supplement that country's weak social safety nets. Given Mexico's slow growth and serious structural problems (poverty and inequality; corruption; low tax collections; poor education system; ineffective political checks and balances; inadequate infrastructure development; restrictive business regulations; rigid, antiquated, and inefficient labor market policies and institutions; and the limited capacities of governments at every level), it is unlikely that its citizens will have adequate job opportunities at home anytime soon. What the United States does about immigration, therefore, has important implications for Mexican economic and political developments, with significant positive or negative spillover effects for America.
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