The predictable furor over President Obama’s executive order offering relief to approximately 5 million undocumented immigrants has obscured the fact that his initiative is much bolder in form than in content. Obama has gone to extraordinary lengths to offer less than what immigrant advocates have for years been insisting is an absolute necessity: full citizenship.
If Obama’s initiative should prove to be the first step on “the path to citizenship” for these undocumented, it is a hobbled and halting one, and the path long and tortuous. It is difficult to believe that this or any Congress now on the horizon will be willing to affirm Obama’s initiative. Neither is it likely, though perhaps less easy to predict, that Congress will risk the political consequences of rescinding it.
It is even more difficult to imagine a president in the foreseeable future unilaterally granting this population any more than Obama has, apart from perhaps extending the order’s three-year limit. Similarly, the odds are against any future chief executive—especially a Republican—terminating Obama’s program. So rather than direct these 5 million individuals down a path to citizenship, Obama has almost certainly consigned them to legal limbo.
Not surprisingly, immigrant advocates have already started pushing back and demanding more. What is surprising is that the undocumented do not seem to share the same sense of urgency. On the contrary, most seem willing to settle for much less than full citizenship—in particular, for legal status that allows them to live here without fear of deportation and to travel back and forth to their country of origin to visit family, which Obama’s order will allow them to do. In other words, the undocumented are not as concerned with attaining citizenship as their advocates have long and strenuously argued.
There is abundant evidence to support this assertion. First, there are ethnographic studies of undocumented immigrants from Ireland, Guatemala, and Mexico, revealing their intentions to return home and their consequent indifference to, or at least ambivalence about, any permanent tie with the United States.
Second, there are the results of the amnesty granted to nearly 2.7 million illegal immigrants by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. According to data published by the Department of Homeland Security, as of 2009 (nearly a quarter-century after the IRCA amnesty program began), barely 41 percent had exercised the option to become U.S. citizens. The other three-fifths remain legal permanent residents.
A recent study from the Pew Hispanic Center reinforces this point by scrutinizing naturalization rates for legal immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Drawing on Current Population Survey data, Pew reports that, as of 2011, only 36 percent of the 5.4 million legal immigrants from Mexico eligible to become U.S. citizens had taken that step. The naturalization rate for legal immigrants from Central America was somewhat higher—44 percent. By contrast, the rate for all legal immigrants, regardless of country of origin, was much higher—61 percent.
Drawing an inference from these data about legal immigrants and the implications for the controversy over illegal immigrants (of whom about three-fifths come from Mexico), Pew offers this understated but striking conclusion: “The Center’s analysis of current naturalization rates among Mexican legal immigrants suggests that creating a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally does not mean all would pursue that option.”
There are several factors to consider in explaining these numbers, not the least of which is the proximity of the immigrants’ country of origin to the United States. Also relevant is the evidence from numerous studies highlighting that illegal immigrants, especially from Mexico and Central America, typically arrive here as “target earners” who have specific earnings goals and do not intend to settle here permanently. To meet their goals, they maximize income by working long hours and minimize expenses by living in Spartan, often substandard conditions.
Granted, such migrants put down roots. Their goals shift, and target earners typically end up remaining, though the notion of one day returning “home” often lingers for many years. Activist lawyer Jennifer Gordon, who sought unsuccessfully to organize a union of undocumented Central American day laborers in suburban Long Island, has aptly characterized such individuals as “settlers in fact but sojourners in attitude.” No wonder that securing U.S. citizenship is not a priority for many such immigrants.
Why are such insights into the motivations of the undocumented so little understood and appreciated, especially after years of debate over getting them on the path to citizenship? In great part, because the undocumented have been politically inert, and the telling of their story has been left primarily to surrogates.
To be sure, illegal immigrants have on occasion been quite assertive. In early 2006, thousands of them in cities across the nation demonstrated against the draconian provisions of a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin). After this extraordinary episode, however, they resumed their customary posture. Yet from this episode we learn that the political inertness of the undocumented is not simply due to their legal status. It also reflects their limited English proficiency, their lack of familiarity with our complicated political system, their preoccupation with working to support their families—and, of course, their conditional attachment to the United States.
The vacuum created by their political inertness has been filled by various palliatives that have encouraged the rest of us to believe we know what illegal immigrants want. Among the more insidious have been Hispanic-majority electoral districts (including 30 such congressional districts) that typically include large numbers of undocumented individuals, whose numbers count for purposes of drawing district lines but who are nevertheless ineligible to vote. Our contemporary version of what the British have referred to as “rotten boroughs,” these afford those elected from them not only the advantages of smaller, more easily managed electorates, but also the opportunity to “represent” the views of “constituents” to whom they are not actually accountable.
Another such palliative has been initiated by activist unions such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which have pressured the labor movement into embracing more liberal immigration policies, including relief for the undocumented. Such unions have also led drives to reach out and organize the undocumented. Yet after years of such initiatives, including “workers’ centers” intended to provide services to any immigrants who walk in the door, it is unclear how many undocumented workers have actually become dues-paying union members.
Again, Jennifer Gordon’s unsuccessful organizing drive comes to mind. Here is the stern advice she reports receiving from a veteran organizer:
There are just too many workers, most of whom are incredibly transient, and too few jobs, and the whole scene is so fluid and uncontrollable. The employers are too small and too varied to make organizing them practical. . . . Give it up and go find an organizing campaign where you have a prayer of success.
While organizing day laborers is especially daunting, undocumented workers in more conventional settings—such as meat-packing plants—pose their own challenges. Organizing workers is never easy, particularly in contemporary America. So why invest the resources of an embattled labor movement in such a forlorn cause? The answer, I believe, has as much or more to do with garnering support for unions from liberal allies than with actually signing up the undocumented as new members. As a Democratic campaign consultant put it to me: “The unions are really talking out of both sides of their mouths on this one.”
Yet the point here is not to expose the duplicity of unions. It is to highlight the various and subtle ways by which Americans have been persuaded that however much the undocumented are “in the shadows,” we nonetheless know what they want and where their interests lie.
Among the liberal allies pursued by the labor movement are the many public interest advocacy groups that have made representation of the unrepresented into an art form. The basic model isstraightforward and by now familiar: A political entrepreneur seeks to fill the void left by diffuse, unorganized interests or by marginalized populations by building up a committed and professional headquarters staff, typically based in Washington, which knows how to raise money from third parties—whether concerned citizens, wealthy donors, or activist foundations—and to garner enough media attention to keep the organization’s agenda in the public eye.Pioneered in the early 1970s by outfits like Common Cause and honed to precision by environmentalists, this organizational model has been relied on heavily by immigrant advocates faced with the challenges I have been describing.
Relatively unconstrained by the pressing needs of actual members, but heavily reliant on demonstrating effectiveness to donors (either by driving policy changes or at least getting media attention), such advocacy accounts for some of the stridency of contemporary politics. In any event, the moral hazard here is clear: The voices and interests of the unrepresented who are the raison d’être of the organization get crowded out by the priorities of the political elites who are most invested in the enterprise.
This scenario is not news to anyone familiar with policy-making in Washington. Yet the specific context in which immigration policy does—and does not—get made is especially fraught. Negotiations over arcane details of complicated policies take place amidst the swirl of emotions inevitably aroused by decisions about “who gets to become an American.” Anyone questioning the credibility of participants from the usual policy networks can expect to be accused of obstructing an already turbulent process. In other words, no one has the cojones to ask the 35-year-old Latino lawyer sitting across the table how he or she knows what undocumented immigrants want.
A striking exception to the political inertness of the undocumented has been the dramatic appearance on the political stage of the DREAMers, individuals who arrived here illegally as children and whose acronym derives from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act. The DREAM Act has repeatedly failed to get through Congress, but its essential elements—temporary relief from the threat of deportation and work authorization—were included in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program announced by President Obama in June 2012. And in his most recent executive action, Obama broadened DACA’s eligibility criteria to cover still more individuals who arrived here as children.
The DREAMers have struck a chord because they have done precisely what their parents either could not or would not do: openly declare a desire to be full participants in American society and politics. Raised here, these young people have an intuitive, if not necessarily formal, understanding of the American political system and assume that theirs are the rights of citizens. Indeed, many of them mistakenly believed that they were citizens, typically discovering otherwise when they were graduating from high school and then realized that their illegal status was a serious obstacle to pursuing higher education.
Unlike their parents, the DREAMers do not display any ambivalence about remaining in America. Neither do they harbor any lingering dreams of returning home one day. They are home. And they demand recognition of that fact loudly and clearly in unaccented English. No wonder they have made an impact on policymakers, who are moved not simply because these young people have been penalized for the deeds of their parents but also because they conduct themselves as Americans claiming their due.
Yet despite such critical differences with their parents and other illegal immigrants who have arrived here as adults, the DREAMers are now regarded as prototypical of the undocumented generally—an undifferentiated group all of whom are assumed to seek full and formal membership in American society, including citizenship.
This, of course, is a gratifying narrative that flatters our self-image as a “nation of immigrants.” As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently put it: “What most defines the 11 million undocumented in America is not illegality but undaunted courage and ambition for a better life. What separates their families from most of ours is simply the passage of time—and the lottery of birth.”
This view of illegal immigration is not all wrong. But neither should it be taken at face value. For while today’s undocumented may display courage and ambition, their goal is typically not to put down roots in America. To be fair, this was also true of many immigrants in the past, especially the millions who arrived here as “birds of passage” in the period leading up to World War I. Italians and other migrants from Eastern and Southern Europe typically arrived here not necessarily intending to stay. Many did, of course, but others, taking advantage of relatively cheap steamship fares unavailable to earlier migrants, did eventually return home.
Far less prone to the gauzy narrative of undocumented immigrants seeking a better life in America is the hard-nosed view of businessmen. Preoccupied with making payrolls and turning profits, they have been less inclined than the rest of us to romanticize immigrant motives. Yet their clarity of vision is limited by a tendency to see immigrants narrowly as workers, and to downplay or simply ignore the social and fiscal strains they—and inevitably their families—impose on communities.
Because of this narrow perspective, most businessmen do not factor into their calculations the burdens of the political claims made by advocates on behalf of illegal immigrants. Then, too, the technical virtuosity of economists (who tend to dominate this policy debate) not only adds lustre to the parochial perspective of businessmen, but also helps nervous political elites keep the debate focused on labor market outcomes and away from more volatile discussions about other challenges posed by illegal immigration.
The narrowness of the business perspective reaches its logical culmination in recurrent proposals for an expanded and streamlined temporary (or guest) worker program. Such an approach might appear to acknowledge precisely what I have been emphasizing, namely that most illegal immigrants do not intend to put down roots in America. Yet as I have also emphasized, “temporary” workers routinely end up staying more or less permanently. In light of these well-known patterns, proposals for temporary worker programs ought to embarrass even Jonathan Gruber.
As they consider their substantive response to President Obama’s recent initiative, Republicans need to ponder how they have arrived at this point. Not for the first time, they will have to reflect on the shortsightedness of their natural allies in the business sector. More counterintuitively, the GOP will also need to think about how it has allowed immigrant advocates to define this problem in a way that admits of no solution.
Peter Skerry teaches political science at Boston College and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Web Link: http://www.weeklystandard.com/article/820648
The San Francisco Chronicle, January 11, 2013.
Congress will face many questions when it takes on immigration this year: Should illegal immigrants be given legal status? Should we raise or lower the number of new immigrants? Should we shift toward taking more skilled workers and fewer relatives of earlier immigrants?
But there's another question that has bedeviled our immigration policy for hundreds of years: Should newcomers, or illegal immigrants receiving amnesty, be put on a path to citizenship or be given a status that would permit them to legally work and travel but wouldn't culminate in citizenship?
This is shaping up as a dividing line between the major political parties. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida made waves last year by suggesting an amnesty for young illegal immigrants who came here as children (one of the many spin-offs of the Dream Act), but giving them work visas rather than citizenship. Something along these lines was introduced late last year in the form of the Achieve Act by retiring Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. Even the conservative policy journal National Affairs has an article by a respected political scientist making the case for such an approach for the bulk of the illegal immigrant population.
Democrats generally have pressed for a path to full citizenship for illegal immigrants and for future foreign workers. As far back as 1885, the embryonic labor movement helped pass the Alien Contract Labor Law, which prohibited the importation of guest workers. More recently, the issue caused dissension within the labor movement during the 2006-07 round of immigration debates. The Service Employees International Union made a strategic decision to ally with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in supporting a large guest worker program as the price of passing a "comprehensive" immigration reform bill. The AFL-CIO, on the other hand, stayed true to its opposition to contract labor, as did a number of Senate Democrats, including Barack Obama.
A number of arguments are offered for the non-citizenship approach:
First - and this is more a sentiment than an argument - the previous big amnesty gave full immigrant status to illegal immigrants, and it was a colossal failure. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 didn't fail because of the kind of status offered, of course (it failed because promises to enforce the law in the future were ignored), but it rightly leaves a bad taste in the mouth. More practically, as Boston College Professor Peter Skerry points out in the aforementioned National Affairs article, by 2009, fully two decades after getting their green cards, only about 41 percent of the 2.7 million illegal immigrants who benefited from the 1986 law had become naturalized citizens.
Some claim that giving illegal immigrants work visas rather than citizenship is an appropriate punishment, given that they knew what they were doing when they settled here illegally, and subsequently broke a whole series of other laws - tax fraud, identity theft, etc. Skerry calls it "a clear and decisive penalty." This has some merit, because the other penalties that illegal immigrants would be subject to under various reform proposals - notably large fines - are merely for public consumption. Few illegal immigrants could afford $10,000 per person to become legal residents, and so the fines would certainly be waived, resulting in no real penalty at all.
Another appeal of the non-citizenship option is that it somehow would not represent amnesty. Politicians on the left and the right are constantly trying to weasel out of the word "amnesty," even though that's the word for legalizing illegal immigrants. But focus-group research told amnesty supporters that the word was to be avoided and, ever since, they've insisted that some feature or other makes their latest proposal "not amnesty."
Visa holders would also not be able to sponsor future immigrants. That means both that such an amnesty wouldn't spark a significant wave of additional immigration down the road and also that the relatives of today's illegal immigrants would not be rewarded with citizenship themselves.
Finally, giving illegal immigrants or foreign workers a status short of citizenship keeps them from voting. This isn't as clear an indictment of Republican supporters of this approach as it may seem; Democrats from Barney Frank to SEIU President Eliseo Medina have been explicit in promoting mass immigration for nakedly political purposes, so it's no surprise that their opponents should also consider its political impact.
My own view is that we should admit fewer foreign workers, not more, and that amnesty is appropriate at this time only for illegal immigrants who've lived here since they were infants or toddlers. But whomever we do admit, or give amnesty to, should be given a path to full membership in our society. The alternative moves us toward the kind of two-tiered society we see in Saudi Arabia, a model we should do our best to avoid.
Topics: Senate Legislation 2013-14