WASHINGTON, D.C. – The decades-long debate over immigration policy in the United States has reached renewed heights. With President Obama’s re-election in 2012, coupled with a new willingness in Congress to create a bipartisan effort to address immigration reform, the Senate “Gang of 8” has recently introduced the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.” If passed the bill will provide a path towards citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented people living in the United States.
Though categorized as a domestic policy issue, many argue that migration, and thereby immigration, is affected by and results from foreign policy decisions.
Elizabeth Malkin of The New York Times posited that NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) is an example of an American foreign economic policy that increased immigration, legal and illegal. NAFTA was an agreement signed by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico in 1994 that was designed to facilitate international trade by removing tariffs. Malkin said that removing tariffs led local Mexican companies to go out of business since they could no longer compete with imports. The net gain in jobs resulting from NAFTA did not make up for the net loss, which led economic migrants to cross the border to seek employment in the United States.
Princeton Sociology professor Douglas Massey, and NYU Latin American and Caribbean Studies professor Jorge Castaneda have led studies showing that stringent immigration laws have increased the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Before such laws were in place people more easily crossed borders and were less likely to make the U.S. a permanent home. Moreover, Massey’s and Castaneda’s research has revealed that undocumented immigration as it stands today is not increasing. In fact, it’s decreasing.
Learning from abroad
When considering U.S. immigration policies, CNN Foreign Policy Adviser Fareed Zakaria recommended learning from other nations’ approaches to immigration. He posited Japan as a “Cautionary Tale,” and noted that, “It has a foreign population of less than 2 percent–six times smaller than the percentage in the U.S.” largely due to “one of the strictest immigration policies in the world.” The country is now suffering from severe worker shortages.
Australia and Canada, on the other hand, he labeled as “Getting it right” due to their “success” in harnessing the power of open immigration policies, resulting in sustained population and economic growth.
“Canada and also Australia now have smart immigration policies that take in talented foreigners who have skills the country needs and determination and drive to succeed,” he noted.
The United States issues 65,000 H-1B visas a year to immigrants who are “highly skilled.” According to Shannon O’Neil, Senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, this number does not adequately help close the growing labor gap that the country faces.
“Generation X is more than 10 million individuals smaller (than the Baby Boomer generation), making it unable to fill vacated spots alone”, O’Neil said. “Business leaders, politicians, and columnists are touting the need for more engineers, doctors, and technology geniuses–hoping to ensure that the next Google, Ebay, or Intel (all founded by immigrants or children of immigrants) begins in the United States rather than elsewhere,” she added.
In addition to attracting “highly skilled” labor, economists and business leaders have expressed a need for workers without degrees or patents–those who are willing to clean buildings, watch over children, maintain landscapes, or care for the elderly. The rising generations in the U.S. are from smaller families and are better educated, while the number of Americans without a college degree has declined dramatically over the past 30 years. This has made it difficult to find willing candidates to settle for lower-paid service-sector positions.
Pramila Jayapal, the Distinguished Taconic Fellow at the Center for Community Change, noted that women, children, and LGBTQ immigrants are the most affected by immigration policies. Two-thirds of immigrants to the United States, she said, are women and children. It is also estimated that 900,000 immigrants identify as LGBTQ, 267,000 of whom are undocumented.
Jayapal argued that if current U.S. immigration policy is left unchanged women, children, and LGBTQ immigrants–the very same vulnerable populations in developing countries–will likely continue to bear the brunt of discrimination and hardships when they arrive in the United States.
Jayapal revealed that “Only 27 percent of employment visas go to women.” In addition she wrote that, “If legalization and a path to citizenship are tied to showing proof of employment, millions of undocumented women would be excluded who work as domestic workers, in informal industries, or at home taking care of their own children.”
LGBTQ undocumented individuals live at the intersection of both marginalized groups, Sharita Gruberg, LGBTQ Immigrant Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress noted.
“Undocumented LGBT workers face discrimination and exploitation because of their immigration status in addition to the discrimination that all LGBT individuals face in the workplace,” she wrote in a column titled “What Immigration Reform Means for the LGBT Community.”
Additionally, immigration reform would enable LGBTQ refugees to seek asylum in the U.S. from countries that criminalize homosexuality, Gruberg explained. “A path to a green card will…most importantly, end the family separations that have been tearing immigrant families, including LGBT families, apart for years,” she said.
Despite the rarity and momentum of the bipartisan legislation that many believe will get the United States closer to “Getting it right,” there remain skeptics of reform policies. Opponents’ disapproval of a “path to citizenship” is bellied by a belief that immigration, legal or not, is harmful in the first place. They argue that immigrants take jobs that would otherwise be available to current citizens, leading to higher unemployment. Others believe that if a path to citizenship is made easier, more immigrants will flood the United States, and that any reform should take place after the border is impenetrably secured.
Advocates for immigration reform have countered that these fears are rooted in misconceptions and unfounded fears.
– John Wendel