Congress Is Anti-Immigrant -- Again
It's possible that nothing is ever new in the U.S. immigration debate. In 1977, his first year in office, President Jimmy Carter proposed "an adjustment of status" for perhaps eight to 10 million (who really knew how many?) undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. The point, Carter said, was to avoid having:
a permanent "underclass" of millions of persons who have not been and cannot practically be deported, and who would continue living here in perpetual fear of immigration authorities, the local police, employers and neighbors.
Objections were raised immediately. Such an amnesty would reward illegal behavior and penalize those aspiring immigrants who had followed the rules only to see cheaters get ahead. It would send a signal to others that they, too, should game the system by entering the U.S. illegally. And, of course, undocumented immigrants were stealing the jobs and lowering the wages of American citizens.
Amnesty. Deportation. Border security. All the pieces on the board remain the same -- but the game, and the nation, is slightly different. The U.S. Hispanic population has more than tripled since 1980. The share of marriages between spouses of a different race or ethnicity has more than doubled in that time. And attitudes about immigrants, including the undocumented, have evolved. The Republican House majority, which recently passed a series of bills to strip undocumented immigrants of protections, is building a fortress on shifting sand.
Public views of President Barack Obama’s executive actions designed to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation are mixed. But in a Pew Research Center/USA Today poll in December, only 27 percent wanted to deport those who meet the requirements. According to Gallup surveys, Americans were more favorably disposed toward immigrants during the depths of the Great Recession in 2009 than they were at the peak of the Reagan or Clinton booms.
But the paradox of this nation of immigrants is that it is often bitterly anti-immigrant. Historically, the nation's love-hate relationship with immigrants has emphasized the latter at the expense of the former. Yet immigration was a tide not easily turned back even in eras when the public stood resolutely opposed to it. As political scientist Daniel Tichenor wrote, U.S. immigration policy has often appeared insulated from "mass publics long opposed to new immigration."
There was no great popular clamor for the immigration overhaul of 1986, for example, yet it was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. The law granted amnesty to several million undocumented immigrants who had been in the U.S. at least since Jan. 1, 1982. Its enforcement provisions, such as forbidding employers from knowingly hiring undocumented workers, proved notoriously weak. More undocumented immigrants -- millions more -- arrived in the U.S. and stayed.
In 2013, it looked as if Congress might follow the blueprint of the 1986 law. The 2013 legislation, passed overwhelmingly by the Senate, struck essentially the same balance as in 1986: amnesty for millions in return for tougher enforcement and border security. But skeptical conservatives revolted, and the bill died in the House.
Since then, the House has moved aggressively to undermine Obama’s actions to protect immigrants from deportation, including his deferred action for "Dreamers" who were brought to the U.S. as children. The nativist wing’s preferred policy of de facto deportation has overtaken the business wing’s desire for a reprise of the 1986 deal.
As a result, anti-immigrant rhetoric is growing more acceptable among Republican politicians. Its main effect is to polarize a previously bipartisan issue -- probably inevitable in Washington circa 2015 in any case -- and to mobilize competing constituencies. However, it’s unlikely to reverse the trend toward greater acceptance of immigrants.
Republicans have the power, at least through 2016 and perhaps far longer, to block the path of undocumented immigrants into the American mainstream. Some small percentage of noncriminal aliens will continue to be deported from the U.S. even under Obama’s directives. Most will not; as a practical reality, they are here to stay. They, or their children, or their children’s children will be Americans. The only question is when.
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