What Makes Immigration Reform So Hard
Immigration is a complex issue. Economic, cultural, legal, and security interests all stand in the way of finding a policy solution to manage the flow of immigrants into the U.S. We must first understand the full breadth of challenges along the pathway to a solution.
For the last several years, the United States has been gripped in a sharp debate over the flow of immigrants into the United States. The fierce exchanges include squabbles over issues like what to do with a large population of unauthorized immigrants and how to manage refugee flows. And the debate comes complete with political landmines that make it difficult to modernize immigration systems to meet the needs of the times.
It is easy to get demoralized about the inability to reach a consensus on immigration policy, but understanding the complexity of the challenge could help us appreciate what stands in the way of reform — and what needs to happen before change can occur. And make no mistake: We must resolve these issues if we are to experience a virtuous cycle of greater openness, wealth, and human development, rather than falling back into a vicious cycle that leads the world into greater anarchy, poverty, disorder and war.
It is easy to get demoralized about the inability to reach a consensus on immigration policy, but understanding the complexity of the challenge could help us appreciate what stands in the way of reform.
The rules of entry and exit pose a problem
Since World War II’s end, migration has steadily increased in every region of the globe. The United Nations estimates that in 2015 roughly 244 million people reside outside of their country of birth. That represents about 3.5 percent of the world’s population. Every day, tens of millions of people cross borders, adding up to roughly two billion annually. Managing those flows is a huge challenge for nation-states.
The rise is partly a function of market forces. As demand increases for immigrant labor, more people move in search of employment. The rise is also a function of family networks. People have a family member in, say, Chicago, and they want to reunite with them and have a shot at a better life.
Still, nation-states determine the rules of entry and exit. This is where politics come into play. Governments have to make choices about who can enter — and exit — and on what terms.
This is where politics come into play. Governments have to make choices about who can enter — and exit — and on what terms.
To reap the benefits of immigration, such as new sources of human capital and labor, nation-states must accept the long-term costs of social integration, the short-term fiscal burdens of concentrated immigrant populations in some regions and localities, and the security costs that come with living in an age of drug cartels and domestic and international terrorism. Of course, the strong feelings on all sides of those issues make it painstakingly hard to create actual policies.
Liberal democracies also must contend with the rights of migrants, including their legalization, naturalization, and citizenship. It is one thing to need foreign labor, but is it right to admit foreign workers without granting them protections against exploitation?
This is another place where so much of our nation’s debate has stalled, especially when it comes to determining whether unauthorized immigrants should have a shot at legalization. Until we find a way to legalize their status, we risk undermining a social contract that extends rights in return for labor and long-term residence ultimately binds us together as a nation.
Of course, the United States is not the only liberal society that faces this dilemma. The economic need for openness versus the political and legal pressures for a closed society are what I call the “liberal paradox.” Dynamic economies need immigrant labor, and open societies are stronger than closed societies. But openness comes with a price. We must be willing to grant foreign workers and their families a basic package of human and civil rights that enables them to flourish, settle, and become full members of our society.
Dynamic economies need immigrant labor, and open societies are stronger than closed societies. But openness comes with a price. We must be willing to grant foreign workers and their families a basic package of human and civil rights that enables them to flourish, settle, and become full members of our society.
Further complicating the picture is the reality that not all migration is voluntary. Each year, millions of people move to escape war, political violence, hunger, and deprivation. As the accompanying chart shows, they become refugees, asylum seekers, or internally-displaced persons.
In 2017 the number of ‘people of concern’ to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was 65.6 million. That includes 22.5 million refugees, 2.8 million asylum seekers, 40.3 million internally displaced people, 10 million stateless persons, and about 1 million others.
The European Union, Germany in particular, has struggled to cope with a wave of forced migration — almost 1 million asylum seekers arrived in Germany alone in 2015. In the past decades, the U.S. has accepted about 75,000 refugees per year, but that number fell last year to approximately 53,000. It is likely to fall further under the Trump administration’s harsh policies.
Tip O’Neill was right
In normal times, such as when the last major immigration laws were passed in 1986 and 1990, the debate about immigration revolved around markets — how many migrants should be admitted and with what skills? — and rights — what status should the migrants have? Should they be temporary guest workers? Or should they be allowed to settle, bring their families, and get on a “path to citizenship?”
All pertinent questions, but cultural concerns such as the origins of the immigrants often trump markets and rights. And the tradeoffs are more intense in some periods and in some countries than in others.
For example, throughout much of U.S. history, immigrants were selected on the basis of race and cultural compatibility. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907-1908 that effectively banned Japanese immigration to the United States, to the National Origins Quota Act of 1924, race and ethnicity were the primary criteria for admission to the U.S.
Not until the 1950s and ‘60s did the U.S. begin to move away from selection by race. The break came with the repeal of the national origins quota system and the 1965 passage of the Hart-Celler immigration act. (The 1965 act's quota on immigration from the Western Hemisphere froze out many Mexican and Central American immigrants, and lead to a surge in unauthorized immigration from south of the border.)
In the heat of the 1986 immigration debate, former House Speaker Tip O’Neill described immigration policymaking as “political death.” The policy game becomes infinitely more complex when a country feels threatened, physically or culturally.
Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill described immigration policymaking as “political death.” The policy game becomes infinitely more complex when a country feels threatened, physically or culturally.
During the Cold War, ideological tests of loyalty for gaining entry into the U.S. were common. What’s more, refugees were screened according to ad hoc foreign policy criteria — chances for individuals to be granted asylum were much greater for those fleeing a communist regime. And after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a registry was created for male nationals of 25 countries. Except for North Korea, all affected countries were Muslim-majority.
In times of war and political crisis, a focus on markets and rights gives way to a concern about culture and security. This is what has happened in the first year of the Trump administration, in recent years in Europe, and in parts of the world such as post-Apartheid South Africa, where foreign workers were victims of xenophobic violence in 2008.
In times of war and political crisis, a focus on markets and rights gives way to a concern about culture and security.
The immigration policy game involves tradeoffs between markets, rights, culture, and security. This makes it difficult to build coalitions for reform. President Trump’s immigration and refugee policy, for example, is couched in cultural, ethnic, and civilizational terms. Christians and Jews are pitted against Muslims, and Mexicans and Hispanics are pitted against whites. Symbolic and racial politics allow him to shore up elements of his political base, but the President has created a perfect storm of opposition to his policies at the international, national, state, and local levels.
The immigration policy game involves tradeoffs between markets, rights, culture, and security. This makes it difficult to build coalitions for reform.
The battle over so-called sanctuary cities is raging in the courts, and 3.3 million Muslim-Americans feel threatened by his policies. At the domestic level, the policy shift contributes to an environment of intolerance and intimidation in which hate crimes have been increasing. And at the international level the policies and racially charged remarks have alienated allies in the Muslim world, Latin America, and Africa.
The EU model — and its challenges
International security and stability depend upon the capacity of states to manage migration. Powerful forces driving people to move make it hard for states alone to manage flows of people. The European Union (EU) has built a common market where labor can flow freely across borders.
The EU model stands out because it is not based purely on homo economicus. It also incorporates rights for individual migrants and even a form of EU citizenship.
Regional integration, especially when it has a long history and is as deeply institutionalized as in Europe, makes it easier for states to risk migration. It also makes it easier for governments to construct the coalitions they need to support even greater openness.
But even a regional system like the EU faces difficulties. Its flow of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers becomes more pressing as the EU expands and borders are relaxed. The EU system for managing refugees even buckled with the surge of asylum seekers in the last decade.
As a result, the EU must create new institutions, pass new laws, and enact regulations to deal with these realities. In fact, this is a pivotal moment for the EU — and the United States. The degree to which openness is institutionalized and constitutionally protected from the “majority of the moment” will determine whether societies will remain open to trade and migration.
Look for more migration, not less
While all these factors combine to make immigration reform difficult, pressures to modernize immigration systems are only going to mount. That’s because international migration will likely increase in coming decades. A cataclysmic international event, like a war or depression, could change that forecast, but even after 9/11 and the Great Recession, the U.S. still admits over 1 million immigrants annually. And despite Europe’s debt crisis, roughly 2.4 million people immigrated to the EU in 2015 from non-EU countries. Growing demand for basic manpower and fierce competition for the highly-skilled worker, when coupled with a demographic decline in the receiving countries, have created economic opportunities for migrants.
Family networks and kinship ties make it easier for people to move long distances by lowering the transaction costs. And when legal migration is not an option, some migrants have turned to professional smugglers, creating a global industry of migrant smuggling. In 2016 almost 4,000 migrants perished at sea while trying to enter the EU.
The extension of rights to migrants also has become an important part of the immigration story. If a migrant can establish some claim to residence in a liberal state, his or her chances of being able to remain and settle will increase. Witness Central American children arriving at the U.S./Mexico border, surrendering to border control agents, and immediately requesting asylum.
As well, developments in international human rights law have helped to solidify their rights. And, once extended, rights are hard to roll back. If they are ignored or trampled upon, the liberal states risk undermining its own legitimacy and raison d’être.
The takeaway is that international migration is on the rise and remains a fundamental feature of our world. How well powerful nations like the U.S. and Germany, regional organizations like the EU, and the international community manage migration will determine whether the world remains open and prosperous or falls back into poverty and war.
The takeaway is that international migration is on the rise and remains a fundamental feature of our world.
As states struggle to meet this challenge they must keep balancing security, economic, legal, and foreign policy interests. And they are likely to encounter a liberal paradox for decades to come.