At the crossroads for immigration reform

By Doris Meissner
February 24, 2014

Always uncertain, House of Representatives action on immigration reform now appears definitively on off mode for 2014.

That’s because House Republicans loudly denounced Speaker John Boehner’s most recent effort to chart a way forward by proposing principles for legislation. They saw the specter of divisive infighting when what they want is a united front for their November re-election bids.

In shelving immigration action, the speaker sidestepped the problem of intraparty strife. He argued instead that his caucus could not trust President Barack Obama to implement any new immigration enforcement measures Congress would pass. This claim, however, overlooks the enormity of what successive Congresses and administrations, under both Republicans and Democrats, have accomplished in immigration enforcement — including throughout the Obama presidency.

Dating back 25 years, but significantly accelerated since 9/11, Congress has made steep investments to ensure that federal agencies can enforce immigration laws aggressively. The United States now spends more on immigration enforcement than on all its other principal criminal federal law enforcement agencies combined.

Spending for enforcement at the nation’s borders and inside the country, along with biometric screening of all foreign-born travelers arriving at U.S. airports, reached nearly $18 billion by fiscal 2012. That is 24 percent higher than the $14.4 billion spent for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Congress should be trumpeting its achievement in fostering modern, muscular immigration enforcement. The United States now has the lowest rates of illegal immigration across its southwest border in 40 years, when historic levels of illegal immigration began. Partly due to the Great Recession and sustained economic growth in Mexico, but also to significantly heightened border enforcement, there has been no net new illegal immigration from Mexico for at least five years.

Deportations, meanwhile, stand at record highs — nearly four million people have been repatriated since 9/11. More than half of all federal criminal prosecutions are now brought for immigration-related crimes.

These trends represent an historic transformation brought about by unprecedented infusions of money and manpower as well as policies that were built into the new immigration enforcement machinery that links up with the nation’s national security strategies.

This transformation delivers on the policy of “enforcement first.” This was a key take-away from the last congressional debate on immigration in 2005-2007. Many elected officials attributed the failure to enact that legislation to a lack of public confidence in the government’s ability and will to enforce immigration laws.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Congress ignores its own record. After all, more than half — 56 percent, in fact — of today’s Republican House members were elected since 2008. They did not take part in the debates and politics driving the enforcement changes.

Still, public opinion has been considerably more discerning. Skepticism about adequate enforcement no longer trumps other concerns. Polling shows increasing support for comprehensive immigration reform, notably for the most contentious of the issues — legalization of millions of unauthorized residents.

Enforcement is a necessary part of immigration policy, but enforcement of outdated laws cannot solve our problems. We need laws that reflect today’s new realities. These realities include changing demographics that produce shrinking numbers of younger workers, innovation and technology as the source of jobs and prosperity in a global marketplace, and a large marginalized population who could be far more productive given a chance to get right with the law.

Each day that passes without immigration reform squanders unique competitive opportunities and overlooks pressing needs. For example:

  • Twenty-five percent of high-tech firms launched between 1995 and 2005 were created by immigrants.
  • Twenty percent of small business owners are immigrants.
  • Sixty to 70 percent of graduate students in critical technology fields are foreign-born with visas that expire after graduation.
  • Future food prices are estimated to increase 5 to 6 percent and the agriculture sector to lose up to $60 billion due to unmet labor needs.
  • More than 60 percent of the nation’s 11 million unauthorized residents have lived here more than 10 years. They have deep roots in workplaces and communities. Many have U.S. citizen children.
  • Significant numbers of talented, educated young people graduate from U.S. high schools and colleges, yet cannot legally join the workforce because they are unauthorized.

The House Republicans’ demands for more enforcement spending and stiff pre-conditions before addressing broader reforms have it backwards. Fixing our broken immigration system requires aligning immigration laws and policies with the nation’s economic needs and future well-being. Then the United States can harness the advantages of immigration, and our immigration laws would be enforceable.

After the spring primary elections — the challenges that matter in most House races — a political opening to revive immigration reform could again arise. House leaders have said they favor a piecemeal approach — passing a series of bills covering specific issues, such as border security and high-skilled workers.

Five such bills have been reported out by committees. A sixth, on legal status, has yet to be introduced. But the Judiciary Committee and the House leadership is reportedly now discussing it.

These six bills could likely be passed if Boehner was willing to schedule them for floor action — knowing passage would come from more Democratic than Republican votes. This is how the recent debt ceiling bill passed.

Taken together, the House bills would comprise a package that could be the basis for negotiations with the Senate on the omnibus bill it enacted last year.

Politically and procedurally, these are all long shots and unlikely. Nonetheless, significant immigration reform is do-able were key players to embrace it in the name of national interest imperatives — instead of overlooking the evidence in favor of misleading rhetoric.


PHOTO (TOP): Protesters calling for comprehensive immigration reform gather on the Washington Mall, October 8, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

PHOTO (INSERT 1): House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) holds a news conference at the Republican National Committee offices on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 23, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Rosa Ayala carries a Resident Alien placard during the International Workers Day and Immigration Reform March on May Day in Los Angeles, California, May 1, 2013. REUTERS/David McNew

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Undocumented UCLA students stand in line at a graduation ceremony for UCLA “Dreamers”, or Dream Act students, at a church near the campus in Los Angeles, California, June 15, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

PHOTO (INSERT 4):  Simon Rodriguez, 2, waves U.S. flags during a protest march to demand immigration reform in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, October 5, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson




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