You’d think comprehensive immigration reform legislation would be a done deal. President Barack Obama has promised to overhaul immigration policy since his 2008 campaign, and leading Republicans have been keen to do the same in the wake of the last presidential election. Last week the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, representing the interests of Corporate America and organized labor, respectively, endorsed a series of reform proposals, including a substantial increase in work visas and labor-friendly prevailing wage requirements. A bipartisan group of eight senators has been working toward a deal, and a bipartisan group of eight House members is also in on the act. So what’s the holdup?
The basic problem is beautifully illustrated by two little controversies, one sparked by liberals and the other by conservatives. On the left, there is a widely held belief that U.S. immigration laws are far too stringent, and that we’re not doing enough to help low-income immigrants become citizens. On the right, there is an equally common conviction that U.S. immigration laws should not, as a general rule, have the effect of expanding the number of people who depend on means-tested government benefits to maintain a decent standard of living.
In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Rahm Emanuel, the blustery mayor of Chicago and Obama’s former chief of staff, and Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois congressman who represents a large share of Chicago’s Latino population, argue that, in order to apply for citizenship, Citizenship and Immigration Services is charging immigrants too steep a price – $680, including a fee for fingerprinting. Emanuel and Gutierrez observe that as the fee has increased over the past decade the number of lawful permanent residents who apply for citizenship has declined. They neglect the possibility that other factors could be at play.
As Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey and former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge G. Castaneda have observed, an average of 29,000 Mexican-born immigrants become citizens each year in the decade before 1996, a number that has surged to 125,000 per year since then. Even if there has been a dip in naturalizations in recent years, the number is still higher than it had been in the years before 1996, when the fees were lower. The chief driver of this post-1996 increase in naturalization rates, according to Massey and Castaneda, is that as Mexican-born immigrants perceived that the political environment was growing more hostile to non-citizens, they chose to react defensively. Specifically, Congress passed legislation in 1996 limiting access to a number of federal benefits to citizens, a signal that immigrants who had been quite content to remain non-citizens ought to naturalize if they wanted to be full members of the American community.
Perhaps a changing political climate has reassured immigrants that they needn’t naturalize to enjoy the benefits of living in the United States. The Obama administration is committed, for example, to extending subsidized health insurance coverage to lawful permanent residents under the Affordable Care Act. And lawful permanent residents who have resided in the United States for five years or more are already eligible for Medicaid, a program that is set to expand dramatically in the years to come. The post-1996 wave of “defensive naturalization” has created a large and growing political constituency that is keen to defend the interests of foreign-born non-citizens, which is in part why the political momentum behind comprehensive immigration reform has been growing.