If reviving the economy, reforming health care, and passing a climate change policy were not difficult enough, last week the Obama administration signalled it might be ready to take on another uphill political battle: overhauling America’s immigration system. It’s been tried before: two years ago, George W. Bush attempted to create a “pathway to citizenship” for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. The plan was supported by business groups and immigration advocacy groups, but it went down in the flames of a populist backlash. Instead of adopting a more liberal immigration policy, Congress started building a fence on the border with Mexico.
Can Obama succeed? Few people expect legislation to be ready this year, but the President plans to test the waters with working groups and discussions. The recession and growing unemployment mean any immigration reform would have to look a bit different than Bush’s, says Noah Pickus, co-director of the Immigration Policy Roundtable, a joint project of Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, and the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “In a recession, the conflict between native-born and immigrant workers is plainer to see,” says Pickus, whose round table includes an Obama official. “It makes it possible to have a more honest conversation about where the trade-offs are.” But any plan would have to acknowledge that bringing millions of illegal immigrants into the workforce would hurt some native-born workers. “That is the hardest nut to crack,” Pickus says.
The Democratic-controlled Congress may be more liberal on immigration, but it also includes a group of newly elected moderates from swing districts where immigration is a hot-button issue. Any legalization plan would have to include ramped-up immigration enforcement at the workplace. And for many critics, legalization or “amnesty” is a non-starter that would simply invite other migrants to flout U.S. law. “Are you going to keep redoing your amnesty every so many years?” asks Bryan Griffith of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank that opposes legalization. “There are always going to be folks coming here illegally or overstaying their visas. It doesn’t solve the problem in the long term.”
James Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland who is part of the round table, predicts that the steep political price of a deal on legalization would likely include switching the overall immigration system away from a tradition of family reunification to a system linked more closely to job skills and labour market conditions, as well as cutting the numbers of other immigrants accepted each year—a very hard sell. “They will have to overcome the objections of the people who have been standing in line and waiting legally for years,” says Gimpel.
But as the son of a Kenyan father, Obama may be uniquely equipped to take on the difficult task, notes Pickus, who was impressed by the nuanced speech Obama gave on race relations during his campaign. “He acknowledged difficulties and choices and trade-offs and how we have to manage through,” says Pickus. “If he could give a speech on immigration like he gave on race—that would be something different.”