Throughout ‘reform’ debate, US ‘immigration’ has changed

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In 2001, when George W. Bush came to power in the United States, three factors — his record as a Texas governor, the strong relationship that he had developed with his conservative Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, and his hope to make the Republican Party more attractive to US-based Latino voters — meant that immigration reform was suddenly back on the agenda for the first time since 1986.USflag

Three US presidential elections, two Mexican presidential administrations and a 2001 terrorist attack and a 2008 financial crisis later, Bush’s successor, Democratic president Barack Obama, will take a leap toward immigration reform today through executive action, pushing as far to the line as possible without exceeding his authority vis-à-vis the US Congress.

Obama will announce today a plan that will de-emphasize the deportation of undocumented immigrants to the United States who have lived in the United States for at least five years, and he will do so with a prime-time Thursday night speech and a campaign-style rollout in Las Vegas on Friday:

Up to four million undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years can apply for a program that protects them from deportation and allows those with no criminal record to work legally in the country, President Obama is to announce on Thursday, according to people briefed on his plans.

An additional one million people will get protection from deportation through other parts of the president’s plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration enforcement system, including the expansion of an existing program for “Dreamers,” young immigrants who came to the United States as children. There will no longer be a limit on the age of the people who qualify.

But farm workers will not receive specific protection from deportation, nor will the Dreamers’ parents. And none of the five million immigrants over all who will be given new legal protections will get government subsidies for health care under the Affordable Care Act.

It’s a strong first step toward reforms that both Republican and Democratic politicians have attempted (unsuccessfully) to pass through the US Congress since the Bush administration. Obama’s action could affect between 4 to 5 million of the currently 11.4 million undocumented immigrants in the United States today.

Why now? And why without Congress?

A pro-reform Republican president couldn’t pass a bill with either a Republican-led Congress (from 2005 to 2007) or a Democratic-led Congress (from 2007 to 2009). Nor has a pro-reform Democratic president passed a bill with either a Democratic-led Congress (2009 to 2011) or, currently, with a Republican House. Obama’s action indicates that he doesn’t believe that the switch to a fully Republican-led Congress will make much different. Despite howling from the Republican opposition about the ‘monarchial‘ nature of Obama’s executive action

While Washington debated immigration for over a decade, the nature of immigration in the United States has changed dramatically. Even if the basics of ‘reform’ today still look and feel like they did in 2001 or 2005 or 2008, the world has changed, and the nature of immigration to the United States has changed with it.

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RELATED: 2014 US midterms showcase rise of Asian Americans

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For example, in 2013, more Asians migrated to the United States than Latin Americans, part of a new wave of immigration from an even more diverse array of cultures, languages and backgrounds that’s rising. In 2008-09, as the global financial crisis sent the United States into its worst recession in decades, net migration from Mexico actually decreased, reflecting a larger trend that began in the mid-2000s.

In the media, within policy circles and inside both political camps, immigration reform is still rooted far too much in terms of ‘Mexican’ or ‘Latin American’ migration. Remember the brouhaha earlier in the summer about unaccompanied minors? Or the endless discussion, mostly among US conservatives, about the need to strengthen border security?

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RELATED: Unaccompanied minors?
Blame a century of US-Central American policy.

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It’s not that border security or US-Latin American policy aren’t points of concern, and, of course, most of the undocumented immigrants in the United States are from Latin America. As of 2009, the US department of homeland security estimated that 62% of undocumented immigrants come from Mexico, with another 12% coming from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

But both supporters and opponents of immigration reform are fighting over the wrong things. They’re overemphasizing the need to build a giant wall across the Rio Grande, when in reality,  true immigration reform — i.e., passed by Congress into law — must address more than border security, necessarily involving a world of migration broader than just ‘Mexico’ or ‘Latin America.’

First-generation immigrants comprise around 14.3% of the total US population, and the 11.4 undocumented ‘illegal’ immigrants make up a minority of them. They join another 18.7 million naturalized citizens and 10.7 million legal residents (both permanent and temporary).

That makes the United States, by far, the largest recipient of net migration in the world. But by proportion of population, it’s far lower than in neighboring Canada (20.7%), where around one-half of the population of its largest city, Toronto, is foreign-born, and in Australia (27.7%). It is, however, slightly higher than the foreign-born populations of some of Europe’s largest countries, including the United Kingdom (12.4%), Germany (11.9%) and France (11.6%).

In either case, some version of immigration reform that makes the system work more efficiently, seems like one of the smartest things that the United States can do. After all, the United States is a nation of immigrants. It’s the only country I can think of where patriotism is based not on nationalism but on idealism, even if the United States hasn’t always lived up to those ideals. From German scientists to Russian programmers to Indian medical technicians, the rise of the United States as the chief economic, military and cultural power in the world is attributable, in large part, to its status as a nation of immigrants.

Though it’s obviously difficult to make generalizations about groups of migrants, Mexicans and Central Americans largely arrive in the United States poorer, with lower education attainment and at greater personal risk than Asians. While Latino Americans, as a group, have lower-than-median incomes and educational attainment, Asian Americans, as a group, have higher-than-median incomes and educational attainment.

But even those generalizations are changing. By decade’s end, Mexico is expected to have the largest economy in Latin America, and as living standards and incomes rise for Mexican families, converging toward the higher US standard of living, the nature of the US-Mexican relationship will change in incalculable ways — especially as the non-immigrant Latino population within the United States grows.

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RELATED: How US immigration reform might affect Mexico

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Reform efforts today follow the 1986 Reagan-era law, which created a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who had arrived illegally before 1982, though it also made it illegal to hire or recruit undocumented workers. That, in turn, created a legal gray zone for the obvious US-based demand for relatively inexpensive labor from Mexican and Central American workers.

Though Congressional Republicans (and plenty of moderates and Democratic allies) argue that Obama’s action undermines the rule of law, it is certainly much more respectful for the rule of law than presidents of both parties have taken within foreign affairs. Both Bush (from CIA ‘black sites’ to water boarding and other questionable tactics) and Obama (from NSA Internet surveillance to widespread drone attacks) have acted with much more disdain for Congress and the public than Obama is doing with respect to anything involving executive action on immigration.

As the inevitable storm arrives, however, it’s worth keeping in mind that ‘immigration reform’ isn’t a matter of Mexicans and Latin Americans crossing the border. It’s improving the legal procedures for a phenomenon that has, for over two centuries, been an intricate part of the American economic and cultural story.

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