A New Immigration Policy for a New Decade? Don't Hold Your Breath

by Michael Branson

As the aughts come to a close with health care reform hogging Congressional attention and an optimistic Harry Reid vowing a Senate vote by Christmas, it seems an appropriate time to ponder what the new decade might hold once the 800-pound gorilla finally lumbers off the domestic agenda.

One hint may have come in the form of a recent speech Department of Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano gave at the Center for American Progress. On November 13, Napolitano told the think-tank audience that, “The hope is that when we get into the first part of 2010, that we will see [immigration reform] legislation begin to move.” That legislation, she continued, would presumably contain a “tough but fair” path to citizenship—as President Obama favors—for the unauthorized immigrants currently in the country.

Despite the DHS director’s claims, however, the prospects appear dim that immigration reform will become the next major domestic push for a President and Congress that just spent much of 2009 in a bruising and tumultuous health care battle. Still, Napolitano insists that having worked on immigration issues since 1993, “I know a major shift when I see one. And what I have seen makes reform far more attainable.”

What has not shifted, though, is the extent to which comprehensive immigration reform remains a polarizing issue among voters, a major reason why reform bills stalled in Congress in 2005, 2006, and 2007. An election-year immigration battle would create too many losers and not enough winners in Congress to provide hope for legislative action before next November. Further, after witnessing the way Congress dealt with the possibility of allowing unauthorized immigrants to be covered by a proposed public health care plan—that is, as a political non-starter—it seems even more unlikely that amnesty is going to realistically be on the agenda within a matter of months. Finally, it is unfeasible that a bill that would legalize millions of low-skill workers would be passed at a time when the national unemployment rate hovers near 10%.

That is not to say that immigration reform legislation is unnecessary. In fact, it is practically vital. Our federal immigration laws have left a gaping hole between policy and reality and cannot hope to effectively deal with the nearly 12 million unauthorized immigrants that are currently living in the country. In the vacuum left by inadequate federal law, a patchwork of state and local laws have stepped in to fill the void. Allowing local law enforcement to perform the duties of the INS, however, is not a productive use of municipal tax dollars and can cause unintended consequences—such as promoting racial profiling and creating a disincentive for unauthorized residents to report crimes for fear of being deported.

We desperately need a national immigration policy that recognizes the reality that immigrants—authorized or not—will continue to enter the country as long as there is a demand for their work and as long as families are separated by national borders. Amnesty is only a temporary answer, and real reform lies in providing sustainable solutions—whether that means instituting a guest worker program, providing health insurance, or granting driver’s licenses—for incorporating these immigrants into American society. Just don’t expect to see it any time soon.


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