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Immigration: The road to recognition

January 23, 2013
Financial Times
Anna Fifield

For the better part of a decade, there has been broad consensus in the US on the need for comprehensive immigration reform. George W. Bush, the former Republican president, and Karl Rove, his Svengali, were for immigration reform, and so were Bill Gates and Andy Grove, the tech entrepreneurs. Barack Obama, the Democratic president, is an advocate, as are the big business lobby groups and the labour unions.

Yet year after year the issue has been a political non-starter in this nation of immigrants. The right has balked at the idea of “rewarding” lawbreakers with citizenship, and the left has insisted the problem cannot be solved by adding more security on the border with Mexico.

In the meantime, millions of young adults are growing up American in every way except on paper. They struggle to get drivers’ licences or go to university, while many businesses operate in fear of suddenly losing their workforce.

Now Mr Obama says he will try again, placing immigration reform at the top of his legislative agenda.

“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country,” Mr Obama said during his second inaugural address. He can expect formidable opposition.

Immigration is one of the most highly charged political issues, as exemplified by the efforts of states such as Arizona, Alabama and Georgia to take matters into their own hands. Those states have passed tough anti-illegal immigrant laws aimed at deterring undocumented workers, and farms in Alabama and Georgia in particular have reported acute labour shortages as a result.

Republican leaders in states such as these can be expected to push back hard against comprehensive reform.

Yet despite immigration reform’s troubled history, there is growing optimism from across the spectrum – from business and unions to Latino groups and religious leaders – that this is the year in which the broken immigration system will be fixed.

“This is a moment,” says Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL who now runs Revolution, a start-up fund, and has long pushed for more high-skilled visas for engineers and scientists.

“There is desire on the part of the White House to deal with it in a comprehensive way and the business community also wants to have it dealt with. Now is the time,” Mr Case says.

Mr Obama is expected to outline a plan soon for immigration reform that would include the “big enchilada” of creating a pathway to citizenship for the 11m undocumented people already in the US, as well as a requirement for them to pay fines and back taxes.

The plan will include provisions on border security and penalties for companies that knowingly hire and exploit illegal immigrants. It will also deal with business concerns about difficulties hiring both high- and low-skill workers.

While there are plenty of roadblocks in the way – not least a Congress where “bipartisan” has become a slanderous term – a unique confluence of events makes the chances better than ever this year.

First, the presidential election served as a wake-up call to Republicans. After an ugly primary campaign in which candidates tried to outdo each other in their hostility to illegal immigrants, the Republicans realise they are swimming against the demographic tide. Hispanics are the fastest-growing part of the US population and their number is expected to triple by 2050. Already, there are about 60,000 Latinos turning 18 – the voting age – every month.

Republicans acknowledge that they cannot afford to alienate such a large chunk of the population. Last year Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, won only 27 per cent of the demographic to Mr Obama’s 71 per cent. A sizeable number of Republicans have indicated a willingness to overhaul the system, and Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, is leading an effort to craft a less generous alternative to the president’s reforms. But many remain opposed to a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants and favour incremental reform rather than one big package.

Second, the number of people stopped on the Mexican border is at its lowest level since 1972, when illegal immigration had not even become a pressing political issue.

The number of those detained has dropped from about 1m in 2007 to 340,000 last year, the result of much stronger enforcement but also of the weak US economy and job market.

“The soft economy has really reduced the pressure at the border so we should take advantage of that,” says John Engler, the president of the Business Roundtable, a group of more than 200 chief executives. “The time to do this is now.”

Third, there is a coalition of “strange bedfellows”, as one participant called it, forming to push for comprehensive reform. Encouraged by Chuck Schumer, a Democratic senator, and Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator, representatives from the US Chamber of Commerce, the big business lobby group, and the AFL-CIO, the biggest federation of unions, have met regularly over the past year to hash out a compromise deal. Both groups agree on the need to create a pathway to citizenship, a mechanism for ensuring employers abide by the laws and continued border controls.

The theory is that this will inevitably be sufficiently bipartisan to win the backing of majorities in both the Republican-controlled Congress and the Democratic-led Senate.

There are a clutch of other conversations going on, with the Business Roundtable and the SEIU union also involved, as well as evangelical Christian and Jewish leaders and, of course, Latino and immigrant groups.

The last big push for immigration reform came in 2006, during the final years of the Bush administration, and was a bipartisan effort led by John McCain, the Republican, and the late Ted Kennedy, a Democrat.

But supporters of immigration reform suffered internal divisions – notably within the labour movement over an expanded guest worker programme, weakening the effort to convince lawmakers to pass the bill. Conservatives attacked the bill for providing a pathway to citizenship for people in the US illegally.

The effort failed in 2007 because it could not win the votes it needed in the Senate. Six years on, are the prospects any better? Analysts and interest groups say yes.

Labour unions have overcome their disagreements, having been through an 18-month consultation that resulted in a shared immigration policy framework.

“There was a unanimous consensus that we should not and could not walk into any legislative battle divided because if the legislators saw the labour movement was divided they would not listen to anyone,” says Ana Avendano, director of immigration action at the AFL-CIO.

Immigrant advocacy groups are now more established while networks of day labourers and domestic workers have formed. Talks among this unlikely coalition are likely to continue for six or so more weeks, during which time it will become clear whether they can forge an agreement.

Economic arguments will be at the forefront of the debate. Economists generally agree that immigration is a net positive to the US, a factor that cannot be ignored as baby boomers retire and pressure builds on government healthcare and pension systems.

The legislative programme ushered through by Ronald Reagan in 1986 showed that comprehensive immigration reform would raise wages, increase consumption, create jobs and generate additional tax revenue, says Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, a University of California professor.

Even though those reforms were implemented during a recession and high unemployment, they still helped raise wages and spurred increases in educational, home, and small-business investments by newly legalised immigrants, Prof Hinojosa-Ojeda wrote in a recent study for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank generally supportive of Republican ideas. Immigration reform would add at least $1.5tn to the gross domestic product over a decade, he estimated.

Meanwhile, businesses say they need more certainty. “My members wouldn’t be as interested in this issue as they are if it didn’t hurt them,” said Randel Johnson, the Chamber of Commerce’s vice-president of labour, immigration and employee benefits. Mr Johnson cites agriculture as a sector where business is crying out for a “stabilised, legalised” workforce.

Advocates such as Mr Case are calling for an overhaul of the way H-1B high-skilled visas are allocated. “Any organisation or nation is only as good as its talent,” he says. “That’s certainly true in the business context and even more so in start-ups, where there is such a fight for talent.”

Mr Case has long been lobbying for an end to the caps that he says force about 20,000 foreigners who graduate with science, technology, engineering and maths degrees to leave the country every year.

He wants to eliminate the caps and create a new Stem visa category. Bills have been introduced by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that would award green cards to the top graduates, but failed to pass.

At the other end of the spectrum, the current system allows employers to sponsor foreign “guest workers” for temporary or seasonal work, or to hire highly skilled workers in a “speciality occupations”. But the numbers of visas is set by Congress and employers complain that the numbers are not adjusted for reality.

There is widespread agreement that this system is not working well, but there is disagreement on how to fix it – just as there was in 2006.

Unions say the “guest worker” programme creates a second class of employee and are pushing for any new arrivals to have full rights and privileges. “We need an employment system that meets the real needs of the labour market so that when there are actual shortages, business can bring in workers and the workers will have full rights,” Ms Avendano says, citing the UK’s Migration Advisory Committee as an example of a system for managing flows.

Groups such as the Chamber of Commerce think an overhauled guest worker programme must be a central part of any comprehensive reform package. “Some parts of the union movement believe there ought to be this commission that would set how many plumbers we need,” says Mr Johnson. “But the data in an economy this big is never going to be good.”

The question will be whether the parties can overcome such differences and form a coalition strong enough to withstand the slings and arrows of Congress.

“The architecture of an immigration reform solution is being designed and manufactured,” says Richard Land, a leader in the influential Southern Baptist Convention and a strong proponent of reform. “All we need now is some political leadership in Washington.”

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