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The Immigration Debate: Reforming America360°CONTEXT

Despite signs of progress, the path to immigration reform in the US is far from clear.

Background

With an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US, the country’s immigration system has been regarded as broken for some time. This perception exists on both sides of the political spectrum. The Republicans are eager to improve border security and restrict the ability of cheap migrant labor to undercut American workers, and Democrats want to provide a path to citizenship for immigrants upon whom the economy partly depends.

Yet recent efforts to reform the immigration system have faltered. A bipartisan bill to address the issue withered on the vine in 2007, while the DREAM Act — aimed at granting residency to illegal immigrants who came to the country as minors — has failed to navigate the legislative process, despite several reformulations since 2001. The issue has proven to be one of the most divisive in US politics. Supporters of reform decry the exploitation of millions of undocumented workers who have no legal rights. Opponents fear that reform could amount to amnesty for individuals that have crossed the border illegally. The economic impact of granting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants is hotly contested, and for those living within the US-Mexico border states, the issue is often seen as one of security.

Despite the seemingly intractable nature of the problem, there have been recent signs of progress towards a solution. In April 2013, following months of negotiations, the so-called Gang of Eight — a bipartisan group of senators, including potential Republican presidential nominee Marco Rubio — proposed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. The bill would create a path to citizenship for immigrants who arrived in the US before 2012, while guaranteeing billions of dollars of funding for border security measures. The bolstering of border security is included as a precondition to the granting of permanent resident status, while those seeking citizenship would be required to pay a fine in order to account for their illegal activity.

In June, the bill was passed by the Senate in a 68-32 vote. Even with glowing comments from Republican figures involved in the bill’s passage, it is expected to meet tough opposition from the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. House Speaker John Boehner has stated that the House will not pass the Senate bill, instead taking a piecemeal approach which will delay — if not entirely derail — the legislative process.

Why is Immigration Reform Relevant?

In the early days of his first term of office, President Obama promised to make immigration reform a key issue for his administration. With so much of his political capital expended on the passage of health care reform, the immigration issue fell by the wayside. Its return as a prominent goal during Obama’s second term can, to some extent, be seen as the result of demographic realities made apparent in the 2012 presidential election. The Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, lost the Hispanic vote by a margin of three-to-one.

With the already substantial voting bloc posed by the estimated 50 million Hispanic Americans predicted to increase rapidly in size over coming years, the Republican Party’s electoral prospects partly hinge on its ability to appeal to the currently eligible citizens. Standing in the way of immigration reform will do nothing to help this cause.

While Republican support for immigration reform may well be tempered by the need to appeal to their traditional voters, there are some indications that even this may not be as clear-cut as it once seemed. A prime example is the argument that creating a path to citizenship for millions of illegal workers will harm the American economy. That charge is under increasing attack from members of the business community.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the Senate bill would reduce the budget deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars in the long-term, while boosting economic output. Whether such predictions will foster a spirit of compromise among House Republicans remains to be seen.

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