A Note on Comprehensive Immigration Reform

For several years, “comprehensive” immigration reform has been discussed in the U.S. Congress and among the general public.   Supporters contend that enforcement-only measures — such as extending the border fence, increasing the number of Immigration & Customs Enforcement officers, efforts to increase deportations, etc. — will not address the true causes of immigration, especially the thirst of the American economy for relatively inexpensive labor.   Although “comprehensive” immigration reform has meant many things to many people, reform proposals often include a regularization program for certain group of undocumented immigrants (i.e., the dreaded “amnesty”), some kind of guest worker program supported by agricultural and other employers, and increased immigration enforcement measures.  Some proposals also have included increasing the number of visas to eliminate long lines in certain visa categories and increased employment visas. 

In the spring of 2006, hundreds of thousands of people — U.S. citizens as well as immigrants — marched in cities across the United States, protesting the tough-on-immigrants Sensenbrenner bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December 2005.  Two U.S. Senators, including now-President Barack Obama, participated in the marches.

President Obama long has supported comprehensive immigration reform.  Supporters of reform were buoyed by his election, feeling that comprehensive immigration reform just might finally be on the horizon.  Well, it just may — or may not — be.

Immigration reform is politically difficult in the best of times — and these most definitely are not the best of times economically in the United States.  Although some members of Congress — Congressman Luis Gutíerrez immediately comes to mind, continue to push for immigration reform, the economy and health care reform now seem to dominate the Congressional legislative agenda.

As the old Brooklyn Dodgers slogan (“Wait until next year!”) went, some members of the Obama administration have argued for restraint and to wait until next year.  But, next year is an election year in Congress.  Enacting legislation on a contentious issue that touches on volatile issues of race and class, seems unlikely in an election year.

At the same time, the Obama administration seems devoted to pursuing more and more immigration enforcement measures.  For discussion of the latest measure, click here.  Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano does not seem to have found an enforcement measure that she does not like.   The political calculus  appears to be that, by so doing, the administration will gain the public trust on enforcement and then be in a better position to seek immigration reform that benefits immigrants.  This strategy was pursued — very unsuccessfully — by the Bush administration — more and more enforcement.  We saw infamous workplace raids in New Bedford, Massachusetts and Postville, Iowa, record levels of deportations year after year, aggressive positions in the courts (while always disputing the court’s jurisdiction), and the like.   The Bush administration ended up with more (and more) enforcement and no immigration reform.

This is precisely the risk that the Obama administration runs.  As it fashions and implements more and more immigration enforcement measures, it may never be able to push balanced immigration reform through Congress.  And delay is dangerous because there is always some reason to put off a national debate on a controversial issue.

Hopefully, the Obama administration knows what it is doing politically on immigration.  Latinos, immigrant rights advocates, and employers have been patient for now.  But, they all have seen what happens when immigration is put off until the second term of a Presidency.  As President Bush acknowledged, such delay was a mistake before — and, many think, a mistake now.

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11 Responses

  1. There’s a nice discussion of some salient topics here in a recent issue of the Boston Review, beginning with an articulate and persuasive piece by Joseph Carens, “The Case for Amnesty.” Please see: http://bostonreview.net/BR34.3/ndf_immigration.php

  2. A.W. says:

    Well, first, one of the causes of immigration is also overregulation. What the real problem here is that there is a need for a “black market for labor” and immigration fits the bill. The recent minimum wage increase might as well be entitled the “full employment of illegal immigrants act” for that seems to more intelligently work toward that goal than actually helping people on the bottom rung of the wage ladder.

    The reason why we need to start with enforcement is that the American people have no faith that promises that we will control the border will ever materialize into action. I mean sheesh, I don’t think the border has been controlled for even one year of my life and around 9-12-01, I started to think that was a real problem.

    Shut down the border for a year or two, and then I will support amnesty. I am not even afraid to call it amnesty. But to say that we should provide amnesty and a promise that this time we will control the border… its just not going to fly.

  3. JP says:

    “President Obama long has supported comprehensive immigration reform. Supporters of reform were buoyed by his election, feeling that comprehensive immigration reform just might finally be on the horizon.” (emphasis added)


    I thought it was pretty clear that comprehensive reform (like, say, McCain-Kennedy) had a much better chance of passing under a McCain administration. It would be about the only thing that his administration and a Democratic Congress would be able to work together effectively on, so it stood a good chance of passing quickly.

    By contrast, an Obama administration and Democratic Congress have much bigger fish to fry first. (Also, I suspect that immigration is an issue where Democratic politicians would rather prolong the fight than claim a win.)

  4. A.W. says:


    I know people who work in immigration law and they felt that Obama was even better on the subject than McCain in terms of getting comprehensive reform.

    Of course alot of people have projected their hopes on Obama, often in the teeth of the facts, but fwiw… yes, alot of immigration advocates thought his election made things more likely to happen, not less likely.

  5. Tenrou Ugetsu says:

    It’s about time immigration in this country was reformed. Those more conservative seem to automatically object to anything that Obama proposes, but he bases his decision in sound policy.

  6. A.W. says:


    Really? Based on sound policy.

    Okay, so what is he actually proposing to do?

    Because for the life of me, i can’t figure out with an specificity. is he going to actual close down the border? beats me. is he going to grant amnesty? i don’t know. is he really going to do anything about what actually drives immigration? that sounds like a no, but who is to say?

    My suspicion is that you really don’t know what he stands for with any kind of detail, and like on most policies, you have poured into him what your hopes and dreams are, not what he actually believes and wants.

  7. cca says:

    What a complete disappointment Obama is on this issue, made even more so by his appointment and support of Napolitano and her policies regarding Latino immigrants, especially jail abuses and “the WALL” (an abomination!) What happened to change – it was supposed to be for the better rather than for the worse!

  8. A.W. says:


    Okay, so how do you propose we control the border?

    Oh, let me guess. you don’t want us to control the border. “Hey, Osama bin Blow-up, come right through.”

    i mean, what could go wrong?


  9. bacchys says:

    Amnesty isn’t needed, and while we might need better border control it isn’t because we need to stop illegal immigrants.

    Unfortunately, the elite in the Republican Party and the overwhelming majority of the Democratic Party are eager to provide their corporate sponsors with ever-cheaper labour, so we’ll eventually get some form of amnesty for illegals who are here despite the majority of Americans opposing it.

    The problem of illegal immigration could be solved rather easily by radically increasing the risks taken by those who employ them. That’s the only immigration form I want to see. Impose a massive fine and lengthy prison sentences for employing illegal labour and the incentives for coming into the this country will disappear.

    Once the problem with illegal immigration is resolved, that will be the time to talk about immigration reform.

  10. Marauder says:

    The best way to stop illegal immigration is to stop rewarding them with edu and medical care!
    NYC is flying out the homeless and welcoming the criminal invaders. Does that really make sense?

  11. melody says:

    CLOSE THE BORDERS all around for ONE YEAR & impose HEAVY FINES on anyone hiring with out proof of legal immigration WE don’t need to pay for special teachers in our schools to teach your children to speak the language of the country you wish to live in! We shouldn’t have to pay to provide interpreters at every level of government. Pay for your own interpreter! (We need a for sure,easy way to look up a persons identity) DO NOT provide ANY special services at the taxpayer expense,ie: medical, housing, food stamps interpreters etc. STOP all that today. Enforce the laws regarding immigration. NO AMNESTY!! We already did that once! This should be the desire of every AMERICAN!