Getting Our Hopes Up for Immigration Reform

Thursday, 06 December 2012 17:49

What are the chances this Congress will pass real immigration reform? I suspect it will be harder than passing a camel through the eye of a needle. But if it is done slowly—and the camel is small and the needle large—it is not impossible.


Any legislation that addresses the fact that roughly eleven million people live in the United States as “aliens,” with no real legal rights, must first get through the House Judiciary Committee, which has a strong conservative anti-immigrant Republican majority. And yet any immigration reform that doesn't begin to resolve the “undocumented alien” issue is unlikely to pass the Democrat-dominated Senate.


To gain some perspective I thought it might be helpful to review a bit of what we know about the “undocumented.”


Just the number –eleven million people living in legal limbo—demands our attention. This estimate has changed little over the last seven years. But it is just an estimate; the actual number of people who are living in the U.S. without a “legal” right to be here is unknown. Most are from Mexico, but the number includes many Asians, Europeans, and people from other parts of Latin America. It is generally agreed that the number has been more or less constant for at least the last few years.


Why isn't the number growing? There are multiple factors. Mexico's economy is booming relative to the United States, and the big demographic bubble that caused much of the migration is over. Our wall building and increased security are having an effect. There have been record numbers of deportations in recent years. And the grass roots anti-immigrant movement that gave us things like Arizona SB1070 has had the effect of creating an uncomfortable environment for immigrants.


Who are the people that stay? For the most part they are like us. They have jobs, are raising families, and have roots in our communities. They pay rent, buy groceries, and get their cars fixed. They are part of our society and they want to be here.


Why did they come in the first place? They came for opportunity, adventure, and in large part because no one was saying no. Many of the rooted—but undocumented—immigrants were part of the Mexican Demographic bubble in the 1990's. During that time roughly twenty-five million people moved from rural Mexico to cities. About half of them moved to Mexico City and the other large cities in Mexico, and the rest moved to U.S. cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. They moved as part of chain migrations and nobody was saying it was wrong. The border was like a freeway where the posted speed limit is 65 but everybody knows that the Highway Patrol won't give you a ticket if you stay under 75.


I propose that Congress thread this needle very slowly. Give a pathway to citizenship to only a small number of people who pay a fine and have a sponsor, and make it part of a larger package of immigration reform. We can see how it goes, adjust the program, and later, address the rest of the undocumented when it is clear that the program is working and there are no unintended consequences.