After Immigration Reform: The Good, Bad and Ugly

Immigration Reform Labor Market ResearchFor over a decade, the prospect of a comprehensive immigration reform has existed.  It has waxed, waned, lingered, and flat-out stalled over the years, but it seems that finally reform will become a reality in the wake of the Gang of Eight’s bi-partisan proposal.

But what happens afterwards?  What does a post reform political landscape look like?

The scenarios can be boiled down to three – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

First, the good–immigration disappears as a political wedge issue.

All of the components of the reform bill work as intended and we see millions of undocumented immigrants gain citizenship within a context of efficient border security and a legal immigration system seamlessly shift toward a work-based system.

Within this first scenario, immigrants, primarily Latino immigrants, are folded into America’s political system.  For example, how European immigrants assimilated into the American political system over the course of the 20th Century.  If all goes as planned, close to ten million new voters, previously undocumented immigrants, could enter the political landscape by 2017.  Those who had been living in the shadows would not only be able to emerge from the shadows, but do so with a political voice and vote.

And the incorporation of Latinos into the political landscape does not necessarily have to be politically one-sided.  If Republicans continue to support immigration reform and if the GOP draws away from the right and moves toward the center, then some of these new immigrants may be amenable to calling the GOP home.

Next, comes the bad—immigrants live in a legalization limbo.

According to the legislation, current undocumented persons can apply for non-citizen Registered Provisional Immigration Status (RPI) status.  After ten years, RPIs can apply for legal permanent residency (LPR) but only if border and immigration enforcement has been deemed successful.  But what if enforcement is deemed unsuccessful?

The enforcement “trigger” may not be met for years or decades after its deadline.  There could be millions of RPIs living in a civic limbo.  They will be able to live in the United States, but without any of the safeguards or rights of a citizen or even legal permanent resident.  In other words, a two-tiered system could emerge of citizens and non-citizens with (RPI) status.  The status of these individuals couldn’t even be classified as that of “second class” citizens, they would merely be “provisional people.”

And finally, the ugly, the worst of both words — immigrants live in a legalization limbo and undocumented immigration reappears as an issue.

In this policy nightmare scenario, RPI status becomes indefinite because of the border enforcement trigger not being met.  But on top of that, the legal immigration system, namely the temporary visa system, does not work as planned.  The idea in reforming the current temporary visa program is that U.S. labor demands will be met by a labor supply supplemented by a temporary immigrant labor supply.  It’s Econ 101, making sure that demand is met by supply.

Currently, labor demand outstrips U.S. labor supply (both for high-skill and low-skill workers).  Moreover, labor demand is also greater than the number of available work visas.  This imbalance is the primary cause for the growth of undocumented immigration.  What if this imbalance cannot be balanced?

Under the proposed immigration reform, temporary worker supply and demand issues would be overseen by a new federal entity, the Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research.  In theory, the bureau would calibrate the number of visas to ensure that in times of economic contraction fewer immigrants would be allowed in and in times of expansion, more.  For high-skilled workers a proposed range of 65,000 to 180,000 has been proposed.  Such a wide range requires careful calibration by the bureau of Immigration and Labor Market research to get the balance just right.  Otherwise, we again enter the cycle of employers ignoring legal pathways and seeking out illegal pathways for bringing in employees.

victoria defrancesco sotoThe current immigration legislation holds out the opportunity for only good coming out of the reform.  However, unintended consequences can and do arise.  In moving the legislation forward, both Republicans and Democrats will need to consider the potentially bad and ugly scenarios.  By planning for the worst, we can better ensure the best.

 Victoria Defrancesco Soto
Dr. VMDS

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on April 23, 2013
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About Victoria DeFrancesco Soto

Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University and a Faculty Fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. She received her Ph.D. from Duke University in 2007 during which time she was a National Science Foundation Fellow. DeFrancesco Soto was recently named one of the top 12 scholars in the country by Diverse magazine.

Victoria’s research analyzes how human thought and emotion shapes political behavior. Her academic work focuses on: campaigns and elections, political marketing, race and ethnic politics, and immigration. Her academic research has been widely published in scholarly journals and edited volumes. In 2008, Dr. DeFrancesco Soto was Northwestern University’s principal investigator for the Big Ten Battleground Poll, a public opinion survey of voters for the 2008 Presidential election. She is currently working on a book manuscript that analyzes the emergence of conservative feminism.