Washington Matters


Obama Ready to Press Hard
For Big Immigration Changes

Mark Willen

Have gains in enforcement set the stage for comprehensive reform?



The Obama administration is committed to making a major push early next year. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who as governor of Arizona had a front-row seat to every aspect of the problem, made the pledge again earlier this month, saying the current situation is simply unacceptable. She cited progress in stemming the flow of illegals into the U.S. over the past few years and insisted now is the time to put together the elements of what she called the three-legged stool: tough enforcement, a much streamlined system for legal immigration and a path to legal status for illegal immigrants already in the U.S.

Napolitano noted some pretty big gains in enforcement over the past two years. About 600 miles of fence have been built along the border with Mexico, the Border Patrol has added 20,000 officers, and significant improvements have been made in the e-verify system, a national database designed to help employers determine a job applicant’s status. In addition, the administration has stepped up the pressure on employers to comply with the law. The immigration service has notified 1,000 firms that their employment rolls will soon be audited, focusing on industries with a history of using illegal labor or those where security is a concern, such as defense or power plants.

The results have been startling. The government, meanwhile, says border arrests have fallen 23%, a strong indication that fewer people are trying to get across. What’s more, many already here are apparently leaving. The pro-immigration Center for Immigration Studies estimates that the number of illegal immigrants declined by 1.3 million, about 11%. It’s not just enforcement, of course. The recession is a huge factor. Immigrants have always come to the U.S. primarily to find work, and when there isn’t any, the rates always decline. But also in play are the tougher border measures and the greater difficulty of getting past more cautious employers.

The enforcement gains are real, and the credit goes to Republicans. When they blocked President Bush’s efforts to pass comprehensive reform in 2007-08, they insisted that enforcement had to come first, before they’d go along with more comprehensive changes. Supporters of a bigger bill realized that they had no choice but to go along and backed tougher enforcement as a prerequisite to an agreement on guest workers and legal status. Now, it’s time for the other side to carry through on the bargain.

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The landmines in the immigration debate haven’t changed. Some people will never be happy unless the government tries to round up the 10 million-plus illegal immigrants already here and deport them – a clearly unworkable goal. Others will object that the path to legalization – with fines, penalties and limits on who is eligible – is too heavy a burden. There will be concerns about immigrants taking jobs Americans need, and employers will believe that whatever limits are set leave them with too few willing to do the work Americans don’t want. Companies will want to give preference to skilled workers, while Hispanic groups argue for admitting more relatives of immigrants who are already here. Some will say the U.S. can’t afford to open its borders when deficits are soaring, and others will say getting people out of the shadows and turning them into taxpayers is the best way to ensure future economic growth.

There are ways to compromise on these matters. A good start is a new Brookings Institution/Duke University study. It calls for legalization of only about half the current illegal population, with strict requirements, stepped-up workplace enforcement, a sharp reduction in the number of green cards for family members and a big increase for legal immigrants with needed work skills. It won’t appeal to conservative Republicans who want to whip up their base again and it won’t appeal to Democrats dependent on Hispanic voters. But it’s a good starting point for a reasonable debate among reasonable




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