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Immigration reform prospects for 2013


Why immigration reform in 2013? Muzaffar Chishti and Claire Bergeron cite the following:

• The Republican Party was jolted by the surprisingly low Latino support for presidential nominee Mitt Romney
• nearly two-thirds of American voters (65 percent) now support giving most unauthorized immigrant workers a chance to apply for legal status.
• recognition in both political parties that reforming the current legal immigration system is critical to advancing the United States' global economic competitiveness.
• For a bill to stand a chance of passage, it must get through Congress before House members gear up for the 2014 mid-term elections. Most interpret that political reality to mean that a bill's best chance would be in 2013.

The article in full: “US Election Realigns Stars for Immigration Reform, But Significant Hurdles Remain”

Published on 11-23-2012

In one sweep, the re-election of President Barack Obama has transformed immigration reform, an issue that for years has largely been seen as a third rail of American politics, into a first-tier legislative agenda item for the 113th Congress. In perhaps the clearest sign that the calculus on immigration has dramatically shifted, a chorus of Republican Party leaders and conservatives who have traditionally opposed immigration reform efforts voiced support for enacting legislation that would include legalization for some of the country's 11 million unauthorized immigrants.

Backers of such a measure are moving quickly to turn ambitious goals into legislative reality. On November 11th, Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) announced that they were re-initiating efforts to draft a broad, bipartisan immigration reform bill. Three days later, President Obama, in his first post-election press conference, told reporters that he expected movement on immigration reform "very soon after [the] inauguration".

President Obama also stated that he envisioned the new immigration reform bill to contain elements similar to those proposed in the 2006 and 2007 comprehensive immigration reform bills that were debated in the Senate. Those measures included strengthened border security, mandatory electronic verification by employers to prevent hiring of unauthorized workers, and a pathway to legal status for unauthorized immigrants who have not committed crimes and who agree to pay a fine, pay back taxes, and learn English.

The contours of what a legalization program would look like remain highly contentious, and it is as yet unclear whether there is sufficient room for compromise between those in Congress who have traditionally favored an enforcement-first approach to immigration reform and those who have long sought to pair heightened enforcement with a solution to the enduring problem of how to deal with the unauthorized population in the United States.

New Momentum for Legislative Action

Immigration reform has remained an elusive legislative goal for over a decade — the result of deep divisions between the political parties as well as ideological differences within them. The idea of immigration reform has been anathema to a cadre of conservative primary voters, causing GOP presidential candidates to tack hard right on the topic. The Republican Party was jolted, however, by the surprisingly low Latino support for presidential nominee Mitt Romney, with exit polls showing he gained just 27 percent Hispanic support (down from John McCain's 31 percent share in 2008 and the 44 percent received by George W. Bush in 2004). And with Hispanic and Asian voters proving ever larger shares of the electorate, the demographic reality is increasingly preoccupying Republican strategists.

Leaders of both political parties also took note of the two polls conducted on and after Election Day showing that, in a significant shift, nearly two-thirds of American voters (65 percent) now support giving most unauthorized immigrant workers a chance to apply for legal status. Meanwhile, as of November 11th, 57 percent of Americans support providing unauthorized immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

A final key factor behind the new momentum for legislative action on immigration is recognition in both political parties that reforming the current legal immigration system is critical to advancing the United States' global economic competitiveness. The Republican 2012 party platform, for example, noted that strategic immigration policies, such as increasing the number of visas allotted to foreign-born holders of advanced science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees, and allowing foreign-born students educated in the United States to remain in the country after graduation, could play a vital role in speeding the nation's economic recovery. Democratic leaders, including President Obama, and current Senate immigration subcommittee chair Charles Schumer, have backed similar proposals. So have tea party leaders such as Rand Paul, and independents such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Obstacles to Reform in 2013

Yet for all the goodwill, political momentum, and policy arguments pointing toward legislative action, a number of obstacles stand in the way of the passage of a broad, systemic immigration bill in the 113th Congress.

The first obstacle is the lack of consensus on the scope and nature of a legalization program that covers some — or most — of the nation's unauthorized immigrants. Immigrant-rights advocates and most Democrats in Congress will almost certainly push for a broad legalization program that allows most of the nation's unauthorized immigrants to adjust to lawful permanent resident status, and places them on a pathway to citizenship over a period of time. Employers in industries that hire large numbers of immigrant workers may also push for a broad legalization program, particularly if they are required to accept as a compromise mandatory enrollment in the federal E-Verify program, an electronic system that searches immigration and social security databases to determine whether newly hired employees are authorized to work.

On the other hand, some Republican politicians have long labeled any legalization as "amnesty" and vowed to vote against it. Some Republicans might be willing to support a legalization program as long as it does not place newly legalized immigrants on a pathway to citizenship. In a Politico interview, Congressman Raul Labrador (R-ID), for example, stated that the United States' immigration problem could be solved "without amnesty, without a pathway to citizenship."

The second obstacle comes from another electoral reality. Republicans have maintained their House majority, with 233 seats in the 113th Congress. Although House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has stated that he is "confident" that the GOP and the Democrats will be able to cut a deal on immigration, enforcement-first House Republicans remain a potent force and may be less willing to forge a compromise. Already, several staunch conservatives have pushed back against Speaker Boehner, noting that he may be further out in front of his caucus on immigration.

On the Senate side, the Democrats and their independent allies now control 55 seats — a majority, but not one that is filibuster-proof. Moreover, many Republicans who might otherwise be willing to endorse a legalization measure might be reluctant to do so if they fear a primary fight. Senator Lindsey Graham, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), both face re-election in 2014. Senator Graham's own past may serve as an object lesson for some — in 2008, he faced huge criticism in South Carolina for what critics touted as his support for "Grahamnesty."

The third set of obstacles is the narrow window of the legislative calendar. For a bill to stand a chance of passage, it must get through Congress before House members gear up for the 2014 mid-term elections. Most interpret that political reality to mean that a bill's best chance would be in 2013. However, before Congress can turn to immigration reform, it must deal with the "fiscal cliff"— the potentially devastating economic consequences that will occur if a series of automatic tax increases and across-the-board budget cuts take effect as planned on January 1, 2013. In addition, most analysts agree that once Congress has resolved the fiscal cliff issue, other types of economic legislation, especially those that are geared toward tax reform and job creation, will be the next area of focus.

Given these obstacles, some members of Congress may find it tempting to introduce piecemeal immigration reform measures that benefit discrete immigrant populations, such as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would grant permanent legal status to some unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children. Supporters of broad-based, systemic reform argue that enacting any such stand-alone measures would effectively kill political support for a larger reform bill, leaving unresolved the enduring problem

Muzaffar Chishti a lawyer, is director of Migration Policy Institute (MPI) office at New York University School of Law. His work focuses on US immigration policy, the intersection of labor and immigration law, civil liberties, and immigrant integration.

Claire Bergeron is a paralegal at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. In 2007 and 2008 she worked as an intern and research assistant at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute (MPI), where she co-authored reports on Social Security letters and the USCIS naturalization backlog. A graduate of Northwestern University, Ms. Bergeron obtained her BA cum laude in legal studies and anthropology in June 2007. While at Northwestern, Ms. Bergeron wrote two theses on US immigration, earning the Legal Studies Department ?thesis of the distinction? award in 2006 for her research on due process standards for detained immigrants. Ms. Bergeron is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

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