Politics and Governance

Reforming the Immigration Policy of a Nation of Immigrants

Since its inception, the United States of America has been a nation of immigrants where people from all over the world have sought opportunity and a more promising future for the next generation.  Unfortunately, the U.S. immigration system has been broken for over two decades. Successive presidential administrations and Congress have failed to enact policies which consider the importance of transnational migration as a result of increasing global economic interdependence and integration.

Reforming the U.S. immigration system has become such a polarizing issue that politicians in both parties refuse to address the problem.  As a result, for President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise to Hispanic voters to reform immigration, he will have to reframe the debate over immigration and debunk popular myths during public and private negotiations.

In 2005, when the Bush Administration was unable to ratify the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, nativist movements nationwide reacted by demanding that their local government enact and enforce immigration laws.  Their fears are fueled by mainstream media, whose news opinion shows oversimplify the complexity of immigration and portray immigrants as job thieves, drunkards, rapists, drug dealers and law breakers.

Changing immigration laws requires a balancing act of differing interest groups, but President Obama’s greatest opposition will come from nativist groups.  These groups fear and do not understand the effects of globalization and demographic changes in America.  To counter their arguments, the president will have to demonstrate how their immigration policies have failed and why immigrants are important to the future of the U.S. economy.

Since 1986, when President Reagan and a Democratic Congress approved the Immigration Reform and Control Act, U.S. immigration policy has attempted to restrict and halt the flows of immigration.  These policies do not acknowledge that immigration is an effect of an increasingly integrated and interdependent world economy.  For example, in 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement expanded trade between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, but severely limited temporary or guest worker programs in fear of a growth in migration.

It is poor policy to refuse to recognize that expanding trade will affect labor markets, particularly in a country like Mexico with a less developed economy than the United States or Canada.  While NAFTA expanded jobs in northern Mexico’s manufacturing sector, it displaced small farmers who could not compete with a developed U.S. agricultural sector.  As a result, many of the displaced farmers traveled north to find jobs in the U.S. agriculture industry, with or without the proper paperwork.

The laws to prevent people from overstaying their visas have had the opposite effect, another failure of immigration policy.  Immigrants who stay without renewing paperwork and get caught reentering the country are banned from coming to the United States for 10 years.  As a result, many immigrants simply choose to not leave. This poorly-planned policy encourages immigrants to stay permanently when they otherwise might have been willing to partake in a guest worker programs and travel between the United States and their home countries.

The second challenge in the debate will be changing the negative public image and story of today’s immigrants. The Obama administration needs to personalize the issue and demonstrate the similarities between today and previous waves of immigration, telling the story of a new generation seeking the “American Dream.” Telling this side of the story should reveal the risks involved getting to the United States, the personal sacrifice of leaving everything behind, including family and friends, and the success stories of entrepreneurial immigrants.  These accounts should incorporate facts about how immigrant work contributes to the U.S. economy in the agricultural, service, construction and technology industries.

In private negotiations, the president should emphasize the importance of how immigrants will protect the United States from the effects of a growing aging population and declining birthrates, both growing problems in Europe.  Furthermore, since ideas and innovative technologies will drive the future of the global economy, our immigration system should allow companies to recruit the best and the brightest minds from around the world so they can produce for us and not our competitors.

During the 20th century immigrants played an integral part of making the United States a success – the Obama administration needs to work with the American people to integrate the new generation and contribute to the country’s future achievement.

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