February 3, 2013

Think again: Fallacies about immigration

As the president and a bipartisan group of senators champion comprehensive reform, it's a good time to clear up misconceptions about benefits and costs.

By SHANNON O'NEIL Foreign Policy

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The obsession with securing the border also ignores the changing realities of illegal immigration. At least 40 percent of the unauthorized population in the U.S. came in legally, and then overstayed their visas. Higher fences and more border policing will do nothing to stanch these flows. 

"Deportation is the answer."

False. While many undocumented immigrants come to the United States thinking only about work, over time their ties extend much deeper. Millions are now forever linked to America, as parents to an estimated 4.5 million U.S. citizens. These family bonds won't be voluntarily sundered, no matter how far these individuals are pushed into the shadows.

Tougher policies affect not only those here without papers but also their American kids and relatives, afraid of engaging fully in their schools or communities for fear of exposing and losing their loved ones.

Recent stepped-up deportations show this can't be the solution either. During Obama's first term, his administration forcibly sent home a record 1.4 million immigrants. This caused great hardship for many Americans, including parents, spouses and children, and broke up families and communities. It also illuminated the economic costs of such efforts. A study by the Center for American Progress estimates the cost of deporting the 11 million unauthorized individuals in the United States today at nearly $60 billion a year for five years -- roughly the entire budget of the Department of Homeland Security. And these calculations leave out the toll to local businesses dependent on these individuals.

Finally, a side effect of the hardening border is to keep people here longer, many permanently. Once, many Mexican migrants spent part of the year working in the United States and part in Mexico with family, a pattern scholars dub "circular migration," which kept migrants rooted in their hometowns. Now, with the higher costs and dangers of crossing the border, this back and forth has plummeted, with few voluntarily returning each year.

So if deportation isn't the answer, what is? President Obama has taken up the call for reform, as have a bipartisan group of senators. They champion a comprehensive reform that includes the possibility of citizenship for those already here, an overhaul of visa and guest worker programs for both high- and low-skilled workers, and better employment verification systems to strengthen workplace policing.

As Obama said in his Tuesday statement, the solution is "smarter enforcement; a pathway to earned citizenship; improvements in the legal immigration system so that we continue to be a magnet for the best and the brightest all around the world. It's pretty straightforward."

The opportunity for change is more promising than at any moment since 2007, when the previous bill came within a few votes of passing.

The U.S. economy is recovering, albeit slowly. Mexican migration has slowed, dampening some of the sensationalism of the past. And perhaps most importantly, the political calculations are shifting.

The Latino community's overwhelming support for Obama, and their important role in pushing the swing states of Colorado, Florida and Nevada to blue, bring political heft to this demographic. This group's electoral power will only grow, as each month some 50,000 Latinos turn 18. Republicans are taking note.

The immigration debates will still be vitriolic, especially in the House of Representatives. To make reform happen, the White House must lead the charge with the Senate. Civic groups -- businesses, labor unions, religious leaders, police officers and grassroots advocacy groups -- will need to come forward as well, offsetting those adamantly opposed.

But for those doubting a successful path forward, some historical perspective is in order.

Immigration debates raged for years before major reforms occurred in the 1920s, 1960s or in 1986, the last major overhaul of the system. While the details may differ, today's politicians, like their political forbearers, may too rise to meet the challenge this time around. And if they succeed, America will benefit again, as it has in the past, by boosting its economy, reinforcing the rule of law and returning to its roots as a country of immigrants propelled by their dynamism.

Shannon O'Neil is senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead."

 

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