The Political Debate over Immigration
Immigration has always been a political issue because government sets the numbers and rules for legal immigration. For a time during the 2008 presidential election, immigration was the most important issue for voters in several key agricultural states.
The first contests of any modern presidential election cycle are the caucuses in Iowa (early January) followed shortly by the primary in South Carolina (late January). Both states have absorbed large numbers of immigrants brought in to work in meatpacking plants. The candidates who win primaries in these states gain important momentum that can keep a campaign on track or derail it.
In 2008, a Pew Center poll showed that – nationally – immigration was the “most important issue” for only six percent of the voters. But in Iowa and South Carolina, the issue rose to the top, particularly for Republican voters.
This fact forced John McCain and other primary candidates to modify their positions on immigration. McCain had been one of the co-sponsors of an immigration bill that would have increased border patrols and enforcement while providing a path to citizenship for some of those immigrants already in the country illegally. He was forced to downplay the approach because key blocks of Republican voters hated it.
“It’s the influx of illegals into places where they’ve never seen a Hispanic influence before,” McCain told a reporter for The New Yorker. “You probably see more emotion in Iowa than you do in Arizona on this issue. I was in a town in Iowa, and 20 years ago there were no Hispanics in the town. Then a meatpacking facility was opened up. Now 20 percent of their population is Hispanic. There were senior citizens there who were – ‘concerned’ is not the word. They see this as an assault on their culture, what they view as an impact on what have been their traditions in Iowa, in the small towns in Iowa. So you get questions like, ‘Why do I have to punch one for English?’ ‘Why can’t they speak English?’ It’s become larger than just the fact that we need to enforce our borders.”
Later, of course, the economy took over as the overwhelming issue everywhere for everyone. But for a time, immigration in rural states was influencing the choice of voters for presidential nominees.
Every administration since 1970 has had to formulate policy on several key questions –
- How many immigrants should be allowed in?
- Who should be allowed in and why?
- How do we enforce the laws already on the books?
- What do we do with those who are already here illegally and working in jobs that most native-born citizens don’t seem to want, at least for the wages being paid?
Since 2000, the U.S. has legally admitted just over one million immigrants each year. It’s estimated that there are a total of 37 million immigrants living in the U.S. now – of those, 12 million are illegal immigrants, 10 million are immigrants living here legally, and 15 million have become naturalized U.S. citizens. The number of illegal immigrants may have declined in 2008 and ’09 because of the harsh economic slowdown.
In 2008, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) arrested and deported almost 350,000 immigrants in often highly publicized raids on meatpacking and food processing plants. At times, those raids separated illegal parents from their children who were born in the U.S. and thus became citizens.
Under current law, foreigners can legally enter the U.S. under certain conditions –
- if they have certain types of family members already here;
- if they are being adopted by a U.S. family;
- if they have a job with a U.S. company;
- if they are refugees or ask for political asylum under strict rules;
- if they are chosen in a “diversity lottery” for people from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S.;
- or, if they have made substantial investments – in one program, $1 million – or have created jobs in the U.S.
In 2009, members of Congress and the Obama administration reopened the debate over immigration, but proposed limited reforms. The main effort, the DREAM Act, was introduced to help young people brought to the U.S. as undocumented immigrant children who have grown up here, stayed in school and kept out of trouble. If enacted, the proposed law would set up a way for these children to become legal residents when they graduate from high school.
Because of the grueling political battles of the past, supporters of immigration reform seemed unwilling in 2009 to pursue major reforms.
Lourdes Gouveia says that she has seen the wave of immigration slow down, as well. “This immigration stream has matured,” she says. “Immigration is slowing down, as it always does. Immigration streams have a history – they are like a bell curve of sorts. They start out as a trickle, they grow as the network becomes denser and people bring their relatives whether they’re in Italians or Polish or whatever, and then they begin to slow down – as the initial attractiveness is no longer there, as the networks that are already in place have sort of exhausted their ties and situations change.”
Lourdes says we should strive to do the best job we can of welcoming and assimilating new immigrants. “We are an immigrant country today that has forgotten how to do integration well and has learned little from the lessons of the past because we have decided to distort the past rather than truly learn from it.”