By Darya Vakulenko
Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
The time for broad immigration reform in the United States has arrived. As a country founded by immigrants, the United States, which has long extolled the American dream and the pursuit of happiness, has a moral obligation to right the wrongs in its immigration system.
It is clearly useless to implement only narrow reforms which have failed up to this point, such as steadily installing tougher border security or simply creating a “path to citizenship”, allowing current illegal immigrants eventually to obtain US citizenship. Both measures have distinctive flaws. The first measure ignores the fact that many unauthorized immigrants arrive in the country with a visa in hand, but then overstay their visit, thereby becoming illegal. Nevertheless, building a wall on the banks of Rio Grande will do nothing to impede their entry as they are already in the country. Similarly, only offering a path to citizenship to all unauthorized immigrants sends a wrong message to neighboring countries.
A more utilitarian approach would be a broad immigration reform propelled by far-reaching improvements that incorporate both border security and facilitate path to citizenship. Additionally, the government should create specific education-related programs to attract more foreign graduate students in natural sciences, engineering, etc. Moreover, the question of immigration should not be excluded while considering new projects in various state agencies, for example the educational programs in Mexico should be looked through the prism of migratory issues.
Policymakers would be wise to remember that immigration has a human face and is closely linked to US history. Historically, the majority of US citizens are immigrants themselves or are only at most few generations away from an immigrant in their own family. Furthermore, politicians in Washington should not ignore that immigration is important to the economic health and well being of the United States. The recent proposal by the bipartisan “gang of eight” (a group of eight US Senators) is the first step toward immigration reform. Though the current proposal is vague in certain areas and controversial in some of its provisions, nevertheless, it offers workable starting point for an educated discussion of the issue.
An important aspect of the Senators’ proposal is the acknowledgement of two specific groups of immigrants, who would face easier paths to legalization. First, the so-called “dreamers” are immigrants, who came to the United States as minors, graduated from a US high school and have either served in the US military or studied in an American college. The second group consists of unauthorized agricultural workers, who according to a research project carried out by University of California, Davis, form half of all farm workers in the Unites States. The same research points out that three-fourths of all hired farm workers in the United States are born abroad, usually in Mexico. Food production is of primary importance to the United States and Mexican immigrants have established it as their professional niche.
It is interesting to note that the inflow of immigrants to the United States may have passed its peak and that their numbers -- especially from Mexico -- are expected to further decline in the upcoming years. According to the Pew Research Center, the latest migration pattern from Mexico is significantly different from what it was in 2000-2005, when approximately 2.9 million entered the United States through the US-Mexican border, and only 600,000 left. From 2005 to 2010, the situation was more balanced, as both indicators were about 1.4 million. The main factors contributing to the decline to the immigration from Mexico -- which accounts for 6 in 10 illegal immigrants in the United States -- were the global economic crisis, the rise of a Mexican middle class, and the decline of fertility rates in Mexico.
Finally, it cannot be ignored that current public opinion supports the need to reform the immigration system, especially three-fourths of the total US Hispanic population that voted for Obama and his promise to press for the reform. The process, however, is at risk of being derailed by the party divide over the political bounty coming from reform -- as though electoral success was the only political goal.
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