Meeting Report

Philip Martin
November 16, 2012

The US had about 40 million foreign-born residents in 2010; they were about 13 percent of the 310 million US residents. There are three major groups of immigrants: about 17 million are naturalized US citizens, 12 million are legal immigrants, and 11 million are unauthorized.

President Obama’s re-election has rekindled interest in immigration reform. Obama said that immigration reform was his major "long-term" priority for the second term and House Speaker John Boehmer said that a "comprehensive approach [to immigration] is long overdue."

This note reports on a November 16, 2012 discussion of the prospects for immigration reform.

The 2013 Context

There are many disagreements between Democrats and Republicans, but little disagreement that immigration reform is among the top domestic priorities after the "fiscal cliff" of tax increases and spending cuts scheduled for January 1, 2013 is resolved. A common  summary of the urgency for immigration reform is that Democrats want immigration reform that includes legalization to reward Hispanic voters who played crucial roles in swing states while Republicans need an immigration reform to increase their appeal to the fast-growing Hispanic voters (Hispanics cast 10 percent of votes in 2012, and are projected to be almost 20 percent of voters in 2030).

In 2006-07, when Congress last considered immigration reform, the unemployment rate was below five percent, the number of unauthorized foreigners was increasing by over 1,000 a day, and agricultural, construction, and service employers argued that they "needed" more immigrant workers. Today, the unemployment rate is about eight percent, the number of unauthorized foreigners appears to be stable and, except for agriculture and IT, few employers want easier access to legal foreign workers.

 Candidate Obama supported comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for unauthorized foreigners, but President Obama was unable to persuade Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform during his first term. Instead, in a bid to win support from restrictionist Republicans, DHS stepped up removals of unauthorized foreigners in the US, deporting over a million during Obama’s first term, including many who were detected because state and local police reported them after routine traffic stops to DHS under Secure Communities. 

 With polls suggesting that over half of US Hispanics have a relative, friend, or co-worker who is unauthorized, there was less enthusiasm among Hispanics for Obama’s re-election in 2012 than for his election in 2008. In a bid to bolster enthusiasm, Obama in June 2012 announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to allow unauthorized foreigners who arrived in the US before age 16 to apply for two-year work permits and protection from deportation. Over 100,000 youth a month applied during the first three months, and the pace is expected to increase with Obama’s re-election.

Nonetheless, it may be hard to enact comprehensive immigration reform because restrictionist-oriented Republicans dominate key House committees. Conditions for unauthorized foreigners may become more precarious if more state and local governments enact Arizona-style laws that require state and local police to verify the legal status of persons they encounter whom they reasonably believe to be unauthorized. 

What Next?

President Obama is sure to highlight the need for immigration reform in his January 2013 State of the Union speech. Bipartisan working groups in Congress, which takes the lead on immigration issues, are discussing the outlines of a possible compromise. 

Many observers are wary, noting that much of the discussion is framed in terms of dealing with law-breakers.  For example, DACA was presented as a program to help the young victims of their parents’ crime of bringing children and youth into the US, and a dissenting opinion in the US Supreme Court’s Arizona decision talked of the state being overrun by unauthorized foreigners. So long as dealing with unauthorized foreigners is perceived as a "threat," it will likely be difficult to enact a "generous" immigration reform.