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The historic struggle with immigration reform


Friday, December 30, 2016

Over the past couple years, partisan entrenchment and political rancor over immigration reform seem more extreme than in the past. Historically, though, immigration has always been a hot-button topic, sending politicians running for their own sides of the aisle. Every president since the Civil War has attempted to address immigration on one level or another, and each time, the stonewalling and partisan bickering was fierce.
 
Attempts to incrementally revise immigration law have typically been slowed or stopped by partisan politics. Moreover, according to a recent piece in The Atlantic, “Campaigns for sweeping reform in this arena have regularly followed a tortured path of false starts, prolonged negotiation, and frustrating stalemate.” Clearly, this is the situation surrounding today’s discussion of immigration reform.
 
The need for reform is clear. Current quota levels for work visas threaten the ability of U.S. businesses to remain competitive on a global level. Graduates from American universities are unable to fill the burgeoning demand for jobs in science, technical, engineering, math and medical (STEMM) fields. And the current caps for work visas prevent foreign nationals from filling the gaps. More frustrating for U.S. businesses and academic institutions is the inability to retain U.S.-educated and trained international students because of the quota levels.
 
Only three years ago, Congress was painfully close to putting a reform package together, with bipartisan support and the backing of big business. However, partisan agendas crept into the negotiations, along with fears stemming from refugee crises and terrorism, and all progress ground to a halt. This led to President Obama’s executive actions on immigration in November 2014, which, unfortunately only served to drive the parties further apart on immigration.
 
On the other hand, the current immigration impasse may offer some hope. The fact that broad immigration reform has historically been accompanied such high political drama, may mean that the current political impediments to reform are surmountable. Even Lyndon B. Johnson, who was the driving force behind the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, easily the most sweeping and, arguably, successful attempt to reform immigration law and policy, faced entrenched resistance. The difference between Johnson and other post-World War II presidents who have taken a swipe at immigration is that he refused to back off the issue. He doggedly negotiated, cajoled and made deals until he got INA passed. The subsequent changes to the demographic landscape of the U.S., because of INA, were remarkable.
 
The current climate surrounding immigration will force the new president and incoming Congress to act. Neither executive action nor tabling the issue will be sufficient. Real immigration reform will become necessary in the near term. In order to succeed, the president-elect should take a page from Johnson’s playbook and take on immigration reform early and directly. It won’t be easy, but, then again, it never has been.

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