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Metros on the Front Lines of Immigration Reform

Padro Lopez (C) watches as President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform on a television monitor at a restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona (REUTERS/Joshua Lott).

Editor's Note: In the wake of President Obama's immigration reform speech and a new bipartisan proposal emerging in the Senate, four Metropolitan Policy Program experts highlight how metropolitan areas, home to 95 percent of the nation's immigrants, will play an important role in the immigration policy debate. See our immigration resources page for more key topics and relevant research and commentary.

President Obama’s speech yesterday in Las Vegas, following the unveiling of the “Gang of Eight” senators’ principles for immigration reform, signals that our leaders mean business.  Previously the only aspect of immigration reform that both parties seemingly could agree on in the last few years had been attracting or retaining high-skilled immigrants.

But elections have consequences and after President Obama’s re-election—boosted by 71 percent of the Latino electorate—many Republicans have swiftly shifted course to support a more systematic overhaul.

Bipartisanship aside, the ultimate success of any reform effort will hinge on how changes are implemented at the local level.  Although reforming immigration is a federal issue, the myriad of state and municipal actions in recent years are a pressing reminder that localities are where the effects of immigration, both negative and positive, play out. 

National leaders should focus on the experiences of the country’s metropolitan areas, home to 95 percent of the nation’s immigrants.  Metropolitan areas are the engines of our national economy, our hubs of research and innovation, our centers of human capital, and our gateways of trade.  As such, they have been and continue to be on the front lines of the debate over immigration policy.  

Discussions about future admissions policies, for instance, should recognize that America is not one economy, but hundreds of metropolitan economies with distinctive labor market needs.  While college-educated immigrants now outnumber those without a high school diploma, skill levels vary greatly across the country, and many high-skilled immigrants face obstacles to obtaining jobs commensurate to their skills.  Metropolitan areas stand to gain much from partnerships that unlock the skills of immigrants with foreign credentials.  The senators’ proposal does include provisions for a more flexible scheme for low-skilled workers and extending green cards to post-baccalaureate students in STEM fields.  No doubt, many metropolitan areas will see short- and long-term benefits from this approach.

That kind of flexibility is important as the country’s labor needs and demographic characteristics will change over time as metropolitan economies grow and evolve. Employers in metropolitan areas from Silicon Valley to the Silicon Prairie have demonstrated significant demand for high-skilled temporary immigrant workers.  But admission categories and levels are in desperate need of modernization to meet our national and regional economic needs.  These include temporary (high- and low-skilled) immigrants as well as those admitted for permanent residency via either employment or family-based visas. Establishing mechanisms to monitor and modify immigrant admissions levels in response to changing local economic needs should be a priority for reform, too.

Metropolitan actions will also shape the success of essential reform efforts around legalization and enforcement to reduce future illegal immigration.  The senators’ proposal would put many immigrants without legal status on the road to citizenship, recognizing the value and justice of incorporating youth who arrived without knowingly violating our laws. It also acknowledges the vital role of immigrant workers in our agricultural sector, and offers others a probationary status while completing new security systems and reducing backlogs of legal immigrants in long queues.

National leadership will not only reduce the need for a patchwork of state and local policies aimed at cracking down on unauthorized immigrants, it will also enable metropolitan areas to better know who their residents are and to move forward with incorporating them fully into the civic, economic, and social life of the region.  How newcomers are received by and connect with their host communities impacts a region’s ability to grow in productive, inclusive, and sustainable ways. 

So as the president and Congress pursue what looks to be the most promising chance for immigration reform in years, let’s not forget that, like politics, immigration affects us all locally. Metropolitan leaders deserve a voice in the debate to ensure that their people, businesses, and economies benefit from an overdue overhaul of our nation’s immigration system.

See our immigration resources page for more key topics and relevant research and commentary.

  • Audrey Singer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. Her areas of expertise include demography, international migration, U.S. immigration policy, and urban and metropolitan change. She has written extensively on U.S. immigration trends, including immigrant integration, undocumented migration, naturalization and citizenship, and the changing racial and ethnic composition of the United States.

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