U-M expert discusses realities of immigration reform

November 11, 2014

ANN ARBOR—Ann Lin, associate professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, has studied recent federal efforts to reform immigration policies and shares her thoughts on why meaningful change may be out of reach until the next presidential election.

Q: Immigration reform seems to be at another impasse with President Obama saying again that he may issue an executive order if congressional action isn’t forthcoming. Is this the right way to go?

Lin: If the president issues an executive order, it is a stopgap effort. It might make the lives of some immigrants better at the margins, but it’s not going to resolve the legal immigration backlog or the status of undocumented immigrants.

The president made a promise to many important constituencies—immigration advocates, Latinos, businesses, civil rights groups. He’s been unable to keep that promise partly because of the politics in Congress and partly because of his own priorities. This is the only option left to him. This is a political move.

Q: What is delaying action in Congress?

Lin: I don’t believe that Congress is going to be able to act in the next two years. Republicans are divided between the part of their constituency that depends upon the labor of undocumented immigrants and the part that would see it as a betrayal of their ideals to legalize the undocumented. And I think that will prevent the Republicans from legislating.

Republicans could try to create a half measure, such as increasing visas for highly-skilled workers, without doing anything for the undocumented. If hi-tech industries abandon the comprehensive immigration reform coalition, some reform for the legal immigration backlog might get through.

The problem, though, is that a significant part of the Republican constituency depends on undocumented labor—construction labor, the service industry, agricultural labor. It knows comprehensive immigration reform is the only politically acceptable way to get legal status for the undocumented.

If limited reform for highly skilled immigrants passes, the potential of reform for undocumented workers disappears. So now that Republicans are responsible for passing immigration legislation, they’re threatened precisely because they might be successful.

Q: Why should Congress act with a sense of urgency when it comes to immigration reform at a time when issues such as Ebola and the Islamic State are pressing in?

Lin: Our current policies are sufficient to deal with any threat from the Islamic State trying to cross our borders. Our current public health policies can deal with Ebola.
Neither is an immigration problem.

Immigration policy needs to be handled because our antiquated immigration policy is a structural drag on the American economy. It limits our ability to adjust to employment challenges in the sectors of our economy that need educated labor. It doesn’t help our economy to have a significant part of our workforce off the books or in the gray market. It is not good when employers can essentially hire people in an unregulated part of the economy. It’s a structural problem in our economy and it has to be resolved.

That doesn’t even begin to deal the social and political consequences of having people, legally here or not, who are not fully integrated into our country. It needs to be resolved on its own merits.

Q: What is your best guess on when immigration reform might happen?

Lin: Immigration reform has always happened in a bipartisan fashion. Today, we’ve forgotten what bipartisanship means. It doesn’t mean that everyone gets together and is happy. It’s the opposite: bipartisanship always requires each political party to antagonize factions within its own party. That’s what we don’t see now. Neither party has leadership with the confidence to decide to antagonize part of its own base. I don’t think we’ll get comprehensive immigration reform until both parties are stronger.


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