Immigration Reform: House Of Labor Marches With Immigrants
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That’s only controversial to a certain extent. Most Americans think we won’t deport or drive out tens of millions of people. Most polls I’ve seen indicate that the American people would like to get rid of the immigrants here illegally, but don’t think we will get rid of them. That’s the main reason strong majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents support legalization. To most Americans, legalization is enforcement because it makes everyone play by the same rules, pay their full share of taxes, and have the same rights and responsibilities.
It’s Not About Repeating 1986
Be that as it may, the debate in Washington over immigration reform since before President Bush took office in 2001 has been about more than just legalizing undocumented workers in the U.S. It has also been about how to treat the immigrants who have been waiting for visas in processing backlogs, how we treat future legal immigration, and enforcement of the whole system at the border and in the workplace. Hence the name “comprehensive.”
The last major bipartisan immigration reform, the Immigration and Refugee Control Act of 1986 – signed and supported by President Reagan and crafted by Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D-KY) – dealt primarily with legalizing immigrants already here and enforcement against illegal immigration. The Members of Congress at the time punted on the difficult issue of future immigration. Labor was much less immigration- and immigrant-friendly in the 1980s (and throughout a lot of the history of the labor movement), which made the politics of determining who and how many immigrants could come in the future too sticky for Congress to resolve. So they kicked that part of the immigration reform fight down the road.
This is one of the main reasons the 1986 immigration reform failed to fix the problem. The reason the population of undocumented immigrants grows is because of the mismatch between the supply of legal immigration (visas) and the demand for legal immigration (from the economy and families in the U.S.). If the supply does not fluctuate with demand, gaps open and the black market fills those gaps. We do not have open immigration and not everyone can legally choose to live in the United States. You have to have a close family relationship or an employer ask the government for your visas for you in almost all circumstances and we have caps on the number of visas issued to countries and issued within categories of employment and family relationships. Most people (and I am one of them), feel things should stay more or less that way, with the exception of a handful on the left, a few committed Libertarians, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page who really do want “open borders.”
Right now, the only way the caps and limits that govern the supply of legal immigration can be adjusted is through the political process – essentially requiring a vote on the floor of the House and Senate, which makes adjustments very difficult. You practically need a sixty-vote majority to blow your own nose in the U.S. Senate these days, so making occasional or yearly – or decennial – adjustments to our levels of legal immigration to keep up with changes in our economy or society is next to impossible. We don’t make changes to our immigration system very often and when we do, it is usually only after a long, emotional fight.
So the demand for legal immigration was rising in the 1980s and continued to rise through the 1990s and most of the 2000s. Legalizing many of the immigrants already here as of 1986 didn’t change that much. There was still a sizable gap between the supply of immigration visas and the demand for legal immigration. Which meant the population of immigrants grew and a very lucrative black market in human smuggling, false documents, and labor recruiting flourished. Enforcement, especially at the border, has skyrocketed and so have deportations (almost 400,000 last year). But the market forces of supply and demand for immigration have proven more powerful than the enforcement mechanisms we put in place because the mechanisms that regulate legal immigration are static, with capped visa numbers, a bureaucracy that is notoriously inefficient, and a legal system made more rigid over time.