Immigration Reform: New President Reopens Old Debate

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By:  Leonard Sparks  
News21 UMD Staff
Posted: Aug. 5, 2009

Texas students chant in June on their way to a mock graduation ceremony in Washington in support of the Dream Act. The proposal would create a pathway for undocumented students who grew up in the United States to obtain legal status and go to college at in-state rates. (News21 photo by Michael Frost / (additional photos in slide show)

It was seen as the immigration reform to end all immigration reforms when then-President Reagan signed the immigration bill of 1986.

The law pumped more money into border controls, created a new temporary visa program, opened the door to citizenship for an estimated 3 million undocumented workers and outlawed the hiring of illegal immigrants. Supporters predicted that the change would plug the flow of jobs for which immigrants were willing to risk arrest and death.

Twenty-three years later, the country's estimated undocumented immigrant population is four times higher. And its new young president is trumpeting some of the old ideas – including a "gateway to citizenship" for immigrants here illegally and a harder line with employers who hire them.

President Obama, whose father was an immigrant from Kenya, signaled this summer that his administration will address the thorny issue of comprehensive immigration legislation this year. The move comes two years after Congress tried and failed to agree on how to fix an immigration system widely seen as dysfunctional.

The outcome could have a significant impact on employers, the number of work visas allocated to foreigners and the workplace rights of those allowed into the country for jobs.

And if Obama can fulfill his vision of providing a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants – about three-quarters of whom are Latin American – the resulting wave of newly eligible voters could affect the fortunes of both major political parties.

“What we saw in 2008 is that over 1 million new citizens naturalized leading up to the election, [and] over 700,000 new immigrant voters came to the polls for the first time,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Immigration Forum.

“And that’s not a threat to anybody. It is a sign that our country is changing and that immigrant voters are looking to our elected leadership and asking the question, ‘How are you treating my neighbor? How are you treating my family?’ ”

Obama Strategy Includes Policy Changes

Official White House photo
President Obama meets with members of Congress in June to discuss immigration reform. From left: Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas; Rep. Luis Guitierrez, D-Ill.; Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y.; Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C.; Obama; Vice President Joe Biden; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The president formally christened his immigration reform push in June by convening a White House meeting with key members of Congress, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration.

Obama said afterward he was encouraged that leaders on both sides of the issue "want to actively get something done and not put it off." The president addressed immigration mainly in broad strokes, though, leaving details of any legislation for Congress to decide.

On his own, Obama has moved over the summer to take a tougher regulatory stance with employers, a change from Bush administration policies that had targeted workers rather than employers.

The Department of Homeland Security announced in July that federal contractors would be required beginning Sept. 8 to use a computerized system called E-Verify to access federal databases and verify employment eligibility.

That same month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it was stepping up audits of businesses. The announcement said the agency had just issued audit notices to 652 businesses, exceeding the 503 issued during the whole 2008 fiscal year.

The Obama administration also said it is working to help immigrants in limbo by directing the FBI to clear a backlog of background checks on immigration petitions and by asking the Department of Homeland Security to process citizenship applications faster.

Sticking Point: Amnesty vs. Deportation

Schumer, who as a U.S. congressman played a key role in passing the 1986 reform, promised to unveil a bill by Labor Day. He issued a set of seven guiding principles for the legislation in June. They include a proposal to require all U.S. workers to verify their identity through physical characteristics, such as fingerprints.

"The time for reform is now," Schumer said. "Just about everyone knows our system is badly broken."

One fix that promises to be contentious is a proposal to extend the possibility of citizenship to undocumented immigrants currently in the country, rather than deport them. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported more than 358,000 illegal immigrants last year. That was almost twice the number in 2001 and the sixth straight year that deportations increased. But last year's tally represents just 3 percent of the total estimated undocumented population.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice (News21 photo by Leonard Sparks)

"Identifying, arresting and deporting 12 million people is not realistic," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice.

"It's not a very humane option," he said. "The idea that we're going to somehow root them out of their jobs and their communities to get them to go home, we think is an ugly fantasy."

But other groups, such as the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform, advocate tougher enforcement. After the president’s meeting, they derided the calls for legalizing unauthorized immigrants.

“The only thing comprehensive about so-called comprehensive immigration reform would be the amnesty for people who have violated our laws,” said Dan Stein, FAIR’s president. “While millions of illegal aliens would be rewarded, struggling American workers and overburdened taxpayers would pay a heavy price were Congress and the administration to repeat the mistakes of the 1986 amnesty.”

Temporary Visas: Expand or Contract?

Guest worker programs are another issue generating strong disagreement, especially between labor unions and businesses. The United States has several visa programs allowing foreigners to work legally in the country in both high- and low-skilled jobs.

Some employers cheat those workers, immigrant advocates say, by paying them below minimum wage and subjecting them to harsh working conditions. The exploitation of immigrant workers creates a "trap door" in the wage system that affects the wages of all workers, Noorani said.

"Through that trap door falls first the undocumented immigrant worker, and that employer pays them a lower wage," Noorani said. "Second to fall through that trap door is the African-American worker, then the white worker. With that closed trap door, everybody will be able to compete for the same job at the same wage."

Some Republicans and business trade groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, support an expanded guest-worker program for low-skilled jobs. Former President George W. Bush proposed bringing undocumented immigrants under the tent of such a program.

"I can't support any position that doesn't have a legal temporary worker program," McCain told reporters after leaving the president's immigration meeting in June. "And I would expect the president to put his influence on the unions in order to change their position."

Unions, a key Democratic ally, oppose any expansion of temporary worker programs, contending they serve as a vehicle for supplying employers with low-wage workers who have few labor rights.

The AFL-CIO and Change to Win, a federation of seven labor groups that includes the Service Employees International Union, advocate a “depoliticized” temporary worker process in which a commission, not Congress, would determine the number of visas needed.

In assessing labor shortages, the commission would also factor in the impact of immigration on the economy and wages. “Not every employer is a bad-apple employer,” said Josh Bernstein, director of immigration for SEIU. “But there are a lot of employers who exploit their workers with pay lower than minimum wage [and] with sweatshop conditions.”

Political Stakes Run High

The shape of any legislative solution could influence which political party Latino voters turn toward. Some say the tone of the 2007 immigration reform debate turned voters away from the GOP.

In a report released in April, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that Latinos, a fast-growing demographic projected to comprise almost a third of the country by 2050, account for 76 percent of the undocumented immigrants in the United States.

The stakes are particularly high for Republicans, who have acknowledged the need to boost their party’s appeal to Latinos. The demographic group has proven to be a reliable part of the Democratic Party’s base, with exit polls from 2008 showing that about 67 percent of Latino voters chose Obama over the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain.

“We have to do a lot more,” McCain said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “We Republicans have to recruit and elect Hispanics to office, and I don’t mean just because they’re Hispanics. But they represent a big part of a growing population.”

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