There is a broad based agreement of a need for immigration reform. In recent months and years, immigration reform has become an important political issue. However, there is some disagreement as to what precisely this reform will look like. On one hand, there is talk about amnesty for illegal immigrants who are currently in the country, an issue that has proved divisive (Grant, 2012). One the other hand, technology companies are lobbying Congress for changes for visa rules, to allow them to retain skilled workers and avoid the offshoring of jobs to foreign countries (Lynch, 2013). While millions of unskilled laborers live in perpetual fear of deportation, the number of applicants for H-1B visas -- for skilled workers -- exceeded the annual cap in just five days (Lynch, 2013). There are clearly a number of problems with the immigration system.
These two distinct issues both fall under the rubric of immigration reform. They highlight both the social and economic nature of the problem, and quite clearly the comprehensive nature of the reform that is needed. No longer are incremental changes to existing programs and laws going to meet the needs of Americans and their government. It is clear that a total overhaul is needed. Compounding matters is that legislators are often unaware of the issue, and if they know some details they lack understanding of the nuance and complexity of the issue (Foster, 2012). Elected officials are often at the mercy of lobbyists with respect to understanding the needs of different stakeholders.
Making matters worse is that the concept of immigration reform has received significant press. There is enough baseline knowledge of the issue among politicians and the American public that it is raised by campaigning politicians. However, with lack of information about the details and nuance, nobody seems to really know what people mean when they talk about immigration reform. This paper will analyze the issue of immigration reform, and the current state of the issue in public policy.
The United States is a nation of immigrants, and the issue of immigration has always been a matter of public policy. There have been quotas on immigration for decades, and many groups who are today accepted parts of American society faced discrimination in immigration policy in the past (Irish, Italians, etc.). While politicians have addressed the issue in the past, modern immigration policy can be traced to the Immigration Acts of 1965 and then of 1990. These acts opened America's doors to newcomers, and are among the most important reforms of recent decades (Citrin et al., 1997).
The issue has returned to prominence today because of the emerging importance of the Hispanic voter. Both parties see immigration reform as an issue for this voter bloc, and therefore have driven immigration reform towards the higher levels of their agendas (Dunaway, Branton & Abrajano, 2010). While technology companies have legitimate concerns about the use of immigration policy to constrain their workforces, their concerns tend to be less important politically. Not only are they small in number but they are located mainly in firmly established Democratic states, so there are no Electoral College votes in play. In contrast, the Hispanic vote has been cited as contributing to losses of states like Colorado, New Mexico, North Carolina and Florida in recent elections, as those states have turned Democratic theoretically with contribution from Hispanic voters. Thus, immigration reform starts to look less like an ill-defined issue to one of crafting policy to appeal to Mexicans and Central Americans.
There are a number of key stakeholders for the issue of immigration reform. All levels of government are affected. Both the issue of undocumented migrants and the issue of H-1B visas affect employment and other macroeconomic issues. This makes the issue one that impacts fiscal policy and the federal government, but even local governments are voted on the basis of economic conditions so all levels of government are stakeholders. Indeed, as the result of inaction at the federal level, some states have enacted their own immigration laws, even though the issue is clearly within the jurisdiction of the federal government. Further, it should be recognized that where there is confusion between federal and state jurisdiction or conflicts between the laws the efforts of both will be impeded.
Another group of stakeholders consists of the immigrants in question and their families. Their futures and economic well-being are at stake with immigration reform. However, their views are not taken into consideration other than via action groups because illegal immigrants and would-be immigrants do not vote. Corporations are stakeholders, however. Tech firms are involved in lobbying because they feel that they are unable to meet their needs without further access to immigrant talent. Other companies benefit from being able to hire illegals at below-market wages.
The affected communities are also stakeholders. The reason that immigration reform is such an important political issue is that legal immigrant communities are concerned for those who are from their country but here illegally. They also see that society's view of illegal immigrants affects society's view of legal ones, such as with the Arizona law allowing police to investigate all individuals suspected of being illegal immigrants for their paperwork. One imagines that this would occur more frequently with Hispanics than, say, with Canadians.
Overall, the issue is one of federal jurisdiction. States can enact and enforce their own laws, and some have already undertaken this process. However, when and if immigration reform comes down from the federal government, those laws will supersede state legislation. It is only federal inaction that has brought about state legislation in the first place.
The current federal strategy represents both the legacy of the 1965 and 1990 laws, but also of a wide range of competing interests. As a result, federal immigration law seems somewhat antiquated and even arbitrary. Certainly, if the last major reforms were in 1990, that is not good enough. Since 1990, we have experienced globalization. A minor trend then -- neither NAFTA nor the Internet existed -- the world has changed significantly. Technology, communications and transportation have improved to the point where the needs of businesses have change significantly, as have the flows of people around the world.
Yet, federal actors have done little to modernize the immigration system. The quotas for H-1B visas are a good example. Clearly, when the quotas were set they were more reflective of actual demand. When the quota for 2013 is filled in five days, that indicates a strong pent-up demand. It also points to a system that is clearly unready for the realities of the 2013 labor market. While individual departments within government -- the executive branch -- can undertake minor policy changes, most politicians recognize that the changes need to be transformative rather than incremental. They need to reflect a coherent strategy that meets the needs of all stakeholders, rather than piecemeal strategy that is, at the end of the day, incoherent.
Compounding the issue is that there are some interesting positions taken by different politicians on the issue. It has been established that many elected officials have fairly low knowledge of the issue, but that does not prevent some from taking a tough stand on immigration. In some parts of the country, being seen as tough on illegal immigrants is a virtue. Other politicians might be painted as soft for not taking equally tough stances. Yet, many are simply being pragmatic, understanding that there are both social and economic issues at work, and one does not benefit from taking an absolutist stance.
The American public seems to be aware of the issue in general, but is short of the details. There has certainly been a healthy amount of media coverage of immigration reform, but as the coverage itself is unclear as to how best to frame the problems, it mostly informs about the existence of the issue rather than informing about the issue itself. As such, there is conflicting public opinion about the issue. This mirrors the views of politicians. This could be the result of the fact that immigration reform is often framed as a singular issue when it is not. Immigration reform is an omnibus issue -- a series of issues that are all loosely related to one another. There is little real connection between the H-1B visa issue and the undocumented immigrant issue. If the public and the politicians are slightly confused about immigration reform, the framing of multiple issues as a single one is part of the problem.
Thus there is no broad consensus for action among the public. This also creates issue for the politicians. While ideally elected officials would be information-seekers and aim to create policy based on careful analysis of the issues, this is the real world. The politicians are often unsure of how to deal with immigration reform because they are unsure of how the different voting stakeholders will react and which of these stakeholders matters most. In general, Hispanic voters…