Why Immigration Reform Is Going Nowhere

Earlier this week, the president met with several high-ranking administration officials and supporters of immigration reform, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to discuss possible ways of moving forward with "comprehensive immigration reform" -- the euphemistic plan to trade tougher enforcement for much-needed improvements to immigration law. The meeting comes on the heels of a recent tour by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano highlighting improvements in border security and assailing Republican critics who depict the Southern border as a war zone.

"We can't keep moving the goal post and saying, when the border is safe we will get to [immigration reform]," Napolitano said at a recent talk. "Enough is enough. ... Damaging information about border communities has been repeated often enough."

But if the immediate reaction to the renewed immigration push is any indication, the debate is headed nowhere new. In response to the talk, right-wing legislators like Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Elton Gallegly and the Heritage Foundation's Jena McNeill predictably screamed "amnesty!" and speculated that the president was simply trying to court Hispanic voters, whose approval rating of Obama recently plunged to an all-time low of 47 percent. Also as expected, right-wing media jumped to point out the isolated murder of a Border Patrol agent in Rio Rico, Arizona, six months ago as incontrovertible evidence that the border is still not "secure."

Anyone who paid attention to the immigration debates in 2006, 2007, and late 2010 will see this debate unfold in a predictable pattern: Hispanic groups pressure Democrats, Democrats brandish their enforcement cred to get Republicans on board with broader changes to immigration law, Republicans invariably counter that the border is still not "secure" and refuse to grant "illegals" amnesty, and the whole issue is put to bed again. The politics of immigration, it's safe to say, are circling in a cul-de-sac.

Much of the problem, of course, is that it is unclear what it means exactly to "secure" the border. In 2007, the U.S. Border Patrol defined "operational control" of the border as "the ability to detect, respond, and interdict border penetrations in areas deemed as high priority for threat potential or other national security." Congress set the bar much higher in the 2006 Secure Fence Act: "the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband." In other words, the Border Patrol wants to keep the border safe while Congress wants to seal the thing entirely.

Setting aside the fact that a complete border seal would devastate international commerce, it's pretty silly to think we can prevent every single unauthorized person or substance from getting past the U.S. border. As a recent National Immigration Forum release points out, no democratic country has ever successfully done so. Totalitarian regimes with shoot-to-kill orders have come close, but even the Berlin Wall wasn't able to keep absolutely everyone from crossing. And as Richard Stana of the Government Accountability Office testified in February, "Resources that would be needed to absolutely prevent every single incursion would be something probably out of reasonable consideration." One researcher who testified before the 9/11 commission, James Ziglar, estimated we would need to almost triple our spending on enforcement to over $46 billion per year -- nearly double the amount Republicans cut from the budget during the debt fight -- to get anywhere close to achieving a complete seal.

But the singular focus on border security in the immigration debate hints at the central flaw: The whole immigration debate has very little to do with what actually ails our immigration system. Since 9/11, what is supposed to be an economic and humanitarian issue has been transformed into a national-security issue. Whether one supports stricter immigration enforcement or not, the basic economic reality is this: As long as there is demand for foreign labor that the immigration system doesn't accommodate, poor people -- especially those in bordering countries -- will risk crossing the border illegally. Our immigration system essentially ignores the underlying reason people come to the United States in the first place.

Believe it or not, current immigration law only allots 5,000 unskilled worker visas per year -- in total. We have uniform per-country quotas, so countries like Iceland, which has a population of about 300,000, get the same number of immigrant visas per year as Mexico, a country of more than 100 million; a prospective Mexican immigrant who "gets to the back of the line" now would have to wait over 130 years for his or her number to come up. Because our immigration administration is funded almost entirely by fees from immigrant applicants, there are huge administrative backlogs and long delays in the immigration courts; separated family members have to wait years because of administrative delays, and you can't join your spouse or parent in the U.S. while you wait. If the immigration system is a stock exchange, our current system is an Old West trading post. We need the New York Stock Exchange.

But there is little hope of fixing the system until elected leaders grapple with the actual problem, and surprisingly, the people making the clearest case for reform are New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch. Bloomberg has straightforwardly called our immigration policy "national suicide" and has blamed 9/11 reactionism for depriving the U.S. of talent from around the world -- quite a statement coming from the mayor of the city most affected by the terrorist attacks. Murdoch has made the case more broadly: "America is desperately in need of improving our country's human capital. ... We want to bring an end to the arbitrary immigration and visa quotas that make it impossible to fill the labor and skill needs of our country," he told a House subcommittee on immigration last year.

The human cost of our immigration policies is not trivial -- it tears families apart and makes prospective immigrants choose between poverty at home or persecution in the U.S. (and isn't it telling, given the risks, that so many choose to come?). But given the conservative penchant for dismissing humanitarian concerns like family reunification as just an attempt to bring "anchor babies" into the country, it seems unlikely many conservatives will be moved to reform immigration because of the human cost. An economic argument that stresses the vast contributions immigrants make -- and frames immigration as a matter of international competitiveness -- seems more likely to succeed.

On one hand, it is laudable that the president has revived the immigration debate, but there is a reason it died last year, even with Democrats in firm control of Congress and the executive branch. Instead of trying to tack immigration reform to an enforcement bill, the president should change the frame and stop talking about immigration as a national-security issue rather than an issue in its own right.

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