Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

How Is the Immigration Debate Changing in the United States?

Q: Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a new immigration policy that allows authorities to use prosecutorial discretion in determining deportations, allowing "many undocumented immigrants without criminal records to stay in the United States." The announcement comes on the heels of protests targeting the Secure Communities program, which activists argue was being used improperly to deport minor offenders. Meanwhile, new reports indicate that illegal immigration has declined significantly over the past several years. How is the immigration debate changing in the United States and what does the new policy mean for that debate? How is it likely to play out in the presidential race? What will be the economic consequences of a decline in immigration?

A: Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR): "The Aug. 18 announcement by the Obama administration that it will cease to remove aliens who have not been convicted of additional crimes in the United States is both bad policy and a violation of the constitutional separation of powers doctrine. Under our Constitution, Congress is vested with the exclusive authority to make laws. It is the responsibility of the executive branch to carry out and enforce those laws, whether the administration in office agrees with them or not. Under the guise of exercising discretion and setting priorities, the Obama administration has designated broad categories of illegal aliens as beyond the scope of its enforcement policy. Beyond mere non-enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security has indicated that hundreds of thousands of aliens who will have their deportation cases dismissed will likely be granted authorization to work legally in the United States despite the fact that they are statutorily ineligible to be employed. In essence, the administration has declared that it will ignore laws made by Congress and substitute its own policies. Regardless of one's position on immigration, the move is a dangerous assault on the separation of powers doctrine. If contempt for the Constitution were not enough, the policy also shows contempt for the public interest. The inevitable response will be millions more people violating our immigration laws without fear of removal. The harmful impact on American taxpayers who already provide illegal aliens an estimated $113 billion in services annually and millions of unemployed Americans is certain to be compounded."

A: Doris Meissner, director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, former Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and a member of the Inter-American Dialogue: "Prosecutorial discretion is a hallmark of effective law enforcement. Given limited resources, each prosecutor's office, police force and regulatory agency must set priorities on how best to enforce the laws for which they are responsible. The Obama administration is wisely putting the focus on public safety, security and border control goals, not on minor offenders. Prioritizing removals of criminal offenders is an important acknowledgment that, no matter how lavishly funded, the immigration system cannot and should not try to remove nearly 11 million unauthorized people from the country. Since 2007 and the onset of the Great Recession, net growth of the resident illegal population, which had been increasing at rates of about 525,000 annually, has stopped. The decline is due to a combination of the economic downturn and increased enforcement. Longer-term forecasts paint a picture of an economy that increasingly rewards and attracts higher-skilled foreign-born workers, rather than generating millions of low-wage jobs, as before. Thus, the need to reform our immigration system to be more flexible and enable employers' needs to be matched with legally-hired workers continues to be urgent. Nonetheless, debate over this complex, politically polarizing issue has only become angrier in recent years, so that legislation remains unlikely before the 2012 elections. Immigration will continue to be a priority issue for important constituencies whose support is vital for President Obama's re-election. However, it is likely to be a second-tier campaign issue, behind jobs, the economy, deficit spending and the role of government in addressing the nation's problems."

A: Louis DeSipio, associate professor of political science and chair of Chicano/Latino studies at University of California Irvine: "The policy changes implemented by the Obama administration to reduce deportation risks for young adult unauthorized migrants without criminal records reflect a long-term failure of immigration policymaking. For the past decade, Congress has looked unsuccessfully for the compromises necessary to reform immigration. Part of any comprehensive reform is legalization. This need for legalization, however, has prevented any serious Congressional debate about comprehensive immigration reform since 2008. Through these policy changes, the Obama administration has established a path for young-adult unauthorized immigrants to gain temporary legal status and, upon additional application, work eligibility in the United States. The status would be administratively granted and could be withdrawn at any time. In the short- and medium-term, these new policies will benefit unauthorized migrants, particularly the young adults who entered the United States as children and would have been able to legalize under the DREAM Act. The administration's actions will undoubtedly improve President Obama's standing among Latino voters, but the new policy pales in comparison to the promise that Obama made in 2008 to reform immigration and pass the DREAM Act. In the longer-term, the outlook is less clear. Anti-immigrant voices resent this exercise of presidential discretion. A more Republican Congress after 2012 could eliminate executive branch discretionary authority in immigration cases. A Republican president, speaking to his own base, could reverse the new policies. Ultimately, the needed solution is for Congress to enact a comprehensive immigration reform that includes a legalization that is more broad and permanent than last week's policy change will achieve."