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Summary: Immigration Policy in the Next Administration

Immigration panel at AS/COA

From left to right: Marzack, Hong, Gonzalez, Perez, and Chishti.(Image: Roey Yohai)

December 03, 2012

Panelists:

  • Erica Gonzalez, Executive Editor of El Diario La Prensa
  • Chung-Wha Hong, Executive Director, New York Immigration Coalition
  • Jorge Pérez, Senior Vice President, Manpower North America
  • Muzaffar Chishti, Director, Migration Policy Institute Office at NYU School of Law
  • Jason Marczak, Director of Policy, Americas Society/Council of the Americas (moderator)

Summary

This panel looked at possible advances and setbacks in immigration policy over the next four years. Topics included the likelihood and scope of immigration reform, how immigration legislation could work its way through Congress, and how to get stakeholders on board. The discussion also explored the importance of how to better meet labor market demands.



Steps toward Immigration Reform

The last push for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) occurred in 2007, when the Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act passed the Senate but failed to reach a majority in the House of Representatives. Following President Barack Obama’s reelection in November, the need for immigration reform is once again making national headlines, with leaders from both parties calling for an overhaul of the system. Muzaffar Chishti explained as in 2007, the United States still faces a divided Congress with limited prospects for bipartisan compromise.

The record turnout by Latino voters favoring Obama over former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney 71 to 27 percent undoubtedly helped move the immigration issue to the fore. Grassroots organizations played a key role in this turnout by registering and educating Latino voters. Chung-Wha Hong explained that The New York Immigration Coalition—an umbrella group for 200 member organizations—has helped mobilize the immigrant community around issues like the DREAM Act and deferred action. These same politically-engaged communities then headed to the polls in November.

Immigration, Labor, and the Economy

Immigration and the economy are often identified as the most important issues for Latino voters. In fact, the two are linked: any immigration reform legislation would likely have major economic motivations and implications.

Jorge Pérez of Manpower, a Milwaukee-based staffing firm, spoke about the labor implications of fixing immigration policy. Retaining desired skills and education in the United States is critical to the country’s economic prosperity, he said. For example, of the 8,000 people who received Ph.D.s in the United States last year, 5,000 were immigrants. However, because of a labyrinthine visa allocation process, many of those graduates were forced to return to their country of origin—taking their skills and labor force productivity potential with them. “We risk losing competitiveness if we can’t retain the professions that we need, like engineers, registered nurses, and workers in the STEM fields,” Pérez said.

Chishti noted that, unlike the United States’ tax code which constantly changes to adapt to changing economic conditions and political trends, immigration policy has remained static since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. “We need to agree on a formula that can adapt our immigration system based on changing labor demand,” Chishti argued.

Erica Gonzalez explained that the media has an important role to play in covering the consequences of immigration and immigration reform. Similar to Manpower’s focus on labor, one area that El Diario aims to highlight is the economic contributions of immigrants. Gonzalez gave the example of economic revitalization in East Harlem, where Mexican immigrants have moved in to fill the gap left by emigrating Puerto Ricans. In the process, the Mexican population has opened small businesses and created a new consumer base. “[The media] needs to paint a more systemized picture of what immigrants bring to the table,” Gonzalez explained.

Components of Legislation

Coming from a local perspective, Hong explained the five components that the immigrant community would want to see in potential reform legislation. These included:

  • Legalization of the undocumented immigrants who are currently residing in the United States, who do not have a criminal records, and who can demonstrate that they are productive members of society;
  • Preservation of the family, looking at undocumented immigrants as a unit, not as individuals;
  • Support for employment-based policies that help employers find the workers and skills they need while respecting workers’ rights;
  • Guarantees of civil rights and liberties for immigrants;
  • Integration of immigrants through citizenship, education, and language acquisition.

Chishti argues that these community demands will have to be reconciled with those of the private sector and other stakeholders. However, no bill will pass Congress without an enforcement component that addresses the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. E-verify will likely become the primary enforcement mechanism in future legislation, Chishti said.

A point of contention among panelists was the issue of citizenship. While Hong said a realistic pathway to citizenship would need to be part of a reform bill, Chishti countered that Republicans would block such a provision. Given Latinos’ historical tendency to vote Democrat—a pattern that held true in November—the GOP will likely resist any provision that could create millions of new Latino voters, Chishti explained.

Next Steps

In spite of a divided Congress, panelists agreed there have been encouraging signs regarding the prospects of immigration reform. First, the November election has made it clear that Latinos are an electoral force to be reckoned with, and along with the economy, immigration is a top priority for this demographic. More importantly, Washington finally seems to be paying attention.

Second, there are prominent Republicans who have come out in support of immigration reform, recognizing that the survival of the party may depend on courting the long-alienated but growing Latino voter base. It seems that change is coming to the GOP:  Former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez formed a super PAC to back pro-reform candidates, and Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said more immigration is not only good policy, it’s “good politics.”