The Path to a New Immigration Reform

Darrell M. West
Darrell West
Darrell M. West Senior Fellow - Center for Technology Innovation, Douglas Dillon Chair in Governmental Studies

July 21, 2009

President Obama recently held a White House meeting on immigration and Sen. Charles M. Schumer, D-N.Y., is talking about the principles for comprehensive immigration reform, a signal that they are serious about starting the congressional debate on reforming the nation’s laws. For those who expect this debate to be a repeat of the stalemate from a few years ago, check again. A changed economic, political and demographic landscape suggests that our national discussion is going to be very different.

For starters, the country is in recession. Historically, immigration reform never is easy during bad economies. Anxiety over the economy spreads and as people grow fearful about immigration, they worry over new arrivals taking jobs held by residents. But this is a new century and a new reality.

Skeptics need to understand how important a new immigration policy is to American competitiveness and long-term economic development. High-skill businesses require a sufficient number of scientists and engineers. Many industries such as construction, landscaping, health care and hospitality services are reliant on immigrant labor. Farmers need seasonal workers for agricultural productivity. Critics who worry about resource drains must understand that immigrants spend money on goods and services, pay taxes and perform jobs and start businesses vital to our economy.

Beyond the economy, immigration reform prospects improve considerably across a fresh political landscape that features a popular Democratic president armed with substantial Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, many who appear receptive to comprehensive reform. Obama has called repeatedly for big ideas and bold policy actions.

The country needs new policies that emphasize the importance of immigrant workers _ across the skills spectrum _ to our country’s long-term financial future. Our universities invest millions in training foreign students but then send them home without any U.S. job opportunities that would take advantage of their new skills. And investing in the children of middle- and lower-skilled immigrants is wise as we recognize their majority role in our workforce as the next generation rises.

Note, too, the changing demography of the American electorate. Nationally, the Latino population comprises 15 percent of the population, up from 12 percent in 2000. With 46 million Hispanics, the group is a rising political power and one that has spread to suburban areas around the country. Hispanics were crucial to President Obama’s 2008 victory. In election night exit polls, it was estimated that 67 percent of Hispanics voted for Obama, an eight point gain over 2004. Moderate Republicans and Democrats now have Hispanics in their congressional districts, and this will affect legislative deliberations.

A new “Brookings Immigration Series,” presenting the work of experts from a variety of fields, answers the questions stirred up by revisiting a debate that raises very strong national feelings. Stimulating new thinking, these papers provide a productive narrative, and a place to start, on understanding immigration reform.

As a sign of the new immigration narrative, key organizations have shifted their policy stance. For example, labor unions historically have been lukewarm on immigration reform because some of their members think new arrivals result in tougher job competition and lower wages. Recently, though, two union federations, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, have announced a willingness to accept provisions that previously were anathema to each. In April 2009, each publicly revealed that it would accept future guest workers, a key sticking point in past discussions, if an independent immigration commission indexed temporary worker programs to economic conditions.

This, and other new policy ideas, has led the public to take another look at this controversy. Over the past year, public opinion has become more favorable to immigration reform. The most recent figures in a Pew Research Center survey demonstrate that nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Americans favor a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants currently in the United States if they pass a background check, pay fines and have a job. This is up from 58 percent last fall.

With the new political landscape, the importance of immigration for the American economy and new policy ideas that address concerns regarding low-skill workers and border security, the ingredients are in place for comprehensive reform. What are required are bold leadership, a new narrative and a commitment to overcome old stereotypes. History does not have to repeat itself on immigration policy.