Just three months ago, no one believed that it would be possible for the US Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform any time soon. Everyone recognized that the immigration system was a mess and needed to be fixed, but the politics were too polarized and complicated for any serious progress to be made. Few if any issues were more divisive and generated more passionate debate.
Yet right after the US presidential elections on November 6th, the pessimists became far more optimistic about the prospects for real reform. The Latino vote proved decisive in President Obama’s reelection. Obama, who got over 70 percent of the Latino vote, immediately made immigration reform among his highest priorities for his second term.
For the Republicans, who in the past had done better with Latino voters (George Bush received over 40 percent in 2004), the defeat was a “wake up call” that demanded a dramatic shift in the party’s hardline thinking about immigration. In light of the country’s profound demographic changes, it was not politically smart to call for “self-deportation (as Mitt Romney did in the campaign) as a solution to the immigration problem. For Latinos, immigration is far from the only issue, but it is important.
Both to put the US economy on a more productive track and to strengthen the appeal of both political parties, immigration reform makes a lot of sense. In the past week, a bipartisan group of influential senators has put forward a proposal, as has President Obama. The key elements include greater border security, a worker employment program, and – most controversially – a path to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized migrants living in the United States. Although the proposals vary in detail, emphasis, and sequencing, there is agreement on broad principles.
The outlook for the first serious immigration reform since 1986 may be better than it has been in a number of years (the last meaningful attempt, in 2006-7, failed), but that doesn’t mean it is going to be easy. In the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, there is still strong resistance to any measure that could be interpreted as “amnesty.” Many will continue to insist on strengthening security on the US-Mexico border before moving to anything else.
In the coming debate, it will be important to make US public opinion aware of new realities. The fundamental fact is that, as a result of tougher border security, the US recession, and declining fertility rates and an improved economy in Mexico, there is today negative migration from Mexico to the United States. Some of the alarmist talk one still hears is not backed up by hard evidence.
Immigration reform is far from assured, but there is a reasonable chance that something serious will happen this year. The US election changed everything.
If Washington is able to take advantage of this opportunity, that would have huge consequences for US society and economy. It would also send a positive message – not only to Mexico, but to Latin America, and, indeed, the world.
2009 has not been a good year for U.S.-Latin America relations. Despite their warm welcome at the April Summit, Latin America’s governments made life more difficult than anticipated for President Obama.
Inter-American relations have taken a disappointing course for the Obama Administration. The US has suffered several political setbacks in the region and little progress has been made on most of the “legacy” issues that Obama inherited.