Immigration has driven politics on the right for the last decade, but with Democrats taking control of the House, is there hope that the logjam on immigration reform in Congress will break? Maybe — if members of both parties are willing to confront reality rather than the immigration bogeymen created on both the left and right. But it will take the White House’s acquiescence to actually get something done.
First, everyone needs to agree on what the current state of immigration, legal as well as illegal, actually is. The influx of Illegal immigrants peaked in the years 1995-2000 and declined significantly in the years after the recession of 2008. The number of illegal immigrants currently living in the United States, according to most estimates, is now 10.7 million, down from 12.2 in 2007.
Moreover, most of those living here illegally — some two thirds — have been here for more than a decade. As these numbers reflect, fewer people are entering the country illegally than in the past, which is also born out by the dramatic decline in the numbers of persons apprehended at the southern border, which was down to a near 50-year low in FY 2018, despite an uptick since the beginning of the new fiscal year.
The pictures of hundreds of would-be Central American refugees in a caravan at the border notwithstanding, illegal immigration is hardly the growing crisis that President Trump has decried since he announced his candidacy in 2015. But that does not mean illegal immigration isn’t a problem that needs addressing; the question is how best to do so.
Second, legal immigration gets less attention than illegal immigration as a political matter, but our legal immigration system is in desperate need of repair. President Trump has pushed to lower legal immigration numbers by endorsing legislation that would eventually cut the numbers in half, but outside the immigration restriction movement, few believe such drastic cuts are in the nation’s best interest. The administration has managed to reduce legal immigration modestly by employing stricter standards on who is eligible for permanent resident status, with the numbers granted last year down by some 20 percent over the previous year.
However, the most important reform is to move toward a skills-based system that admits immigrants on the basis of what they have to offer America. The immigrant advocacy community has largely resisted efforts to move away from family-reunification as the basis of our immigration system, which has been in place since 1965 and has produced the current mix of mostly Asian and Latin American immigrants. Conservatives have pushed for a system that would restrict immigration primarily to those with high skills who could be expected to be immediate contributors to our economy and not strain government services.
I would argue, however, that neither approach — family reunification nor high-skilled immigration alone — meets our needs. Admitting immigrants who already have relatives here helps smooth their integration and serves a humanitarian function as well, but it should not be the only consideration as some on the left seem to believe. If we want immigrants to be embraced and regarded as a net positive for our society, we must shape a system that benefits us as well as the newcomers. That system should look at skills as an important qualification, but those skills should be across a broad spectrum that takes into account the jobs in our society that currently need filling as well as the success the United States has had in moving immigrants quickly up the social and economic ladder.
In every era, immigrants to America have come with less education and lower skills than the native population, but their children succeeded. This pattern is as true today as it has ever been, with the adult children of immigrants more likely to have graduated college and as likely to have purchased a home and attained median income as the U.S.-born population.
Third, and most importantly, we are currently experiencing a labor shortage that grows more problematic by the day. According to the Associated General Contractors, 80 percent of their members say that they have difficulty finding salaried or hourly workers and nearly half said they expect their problems to get worse over the next year. There simply are not enough workers to fill vacancies in many industries, and the declining unemployment rate has made finding people willing and able to do certain jobs challenging.
The Trump administration’s immigration policies — from making it more difficult to obtain a green card, to threatening to revoke Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for hundreds of thousands of Central American, Haitian and others who fled warfare and natural disasters in their countries of origin and have been working in the United States for years, to threatening the legal status granted through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — will stop economic expansion in its tracks. We need more foreign-born workers, not fewer. The only question is how best to attract them.
The 116th Congress should tackle this problem by passing modest immigration reform that includes legislation to grant legal status to DACA participants and extend protections to those TPS beneficiaries who are currently working and have built their lives here. Reform should also include a guest worker program that allows employers to hire enough foreign-born workers to fill jobs that Americans either cannot or will not do .
Finally, Congress must begin the process of a comprehensive overhaul of existing immigration law that moves to a system that benefits both those whom we admit and the nation. We need a system that is market-driven and flexible, that allows us to admit more immigrants when we need them, and one that encourages successful assimilation into the cultural and economic mainstream.
If we do it right, illegal immigration will continue to decline as we give those whose skills we need a path to come legally, whether as permanent residents or temporary workers. Immigration is fixable; the new Congress should make it a priority.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the nonprofit Center for Equal Opportunity. She served President Reagan as White House director of public liaison and before that as staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and she was the first Latina ever nominated to the United States Cabinet when George W. Bush nominated her for Labor secretary in 2000.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.