The biggest and thorniest barrier to overhauling the U.S. immigration system has always been what to do about the millions of undocumented people already here. Potential solutions that have been bandied about over the years—ranging from mass deportation to mass amnesty—have tended to be unworkable, politically impossible, or both. A political candidate’s best bet is to fudge the issue and hope no one notices.
Witness the recent dustup in the Republican presidential primary race. Mitt Romney threw the GOP dirty word “amnesty” at Newt Gingrich because Gingrich said it was unlikely that the United States would deport 11 million illegal immigrants. The former House speaker had suggested a widely criticized “red card” plan to give legal status, but not citizenship, to some undocumented foreigners who have been in the country for 25 years.
Give Gingrich credit for at least acknowledging the illegal population, even though his proposal would not do much to address the challenge. Very few undocumented adults have been here for 25 years. If they have, they probably were legalized under President Reagan 1986 amnesty.
The other GOP candidates (along with many Democratic lawmakers) don’t even mention undocumented immigrants if they can avoid it. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and some other Republicans talk about deporting as many as possible; Romney and others in the GOP focus on ensuring that they don’t receive government benefits. Democrats tend to talk about reunifying families.
“We’ve never, as a country, really confronted what level of immigration we need to keep the country going strong. Because people are afraid to address those issues, it sort of warps what you can do,” said Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, who helped craft the path to citizenship proposed by the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy. Kennedy and President Bush pushed a sweeping immigration bill through the Senate in 2006, but a similar measure died in 2007.
One need look no further than the 2007 legislation to grasp the political difficulty of coming to grips with the issue of undocumented immigrants. It marked policymakers’ last serious effort to deal with the unauthorized population as a whole, but even Kennedy admitted at the time that the bill’s painfully negotiated legalization plan would collapse under its own weight. “We’ll fix it in conference,” he assured supporters.
The bill contained a “Z visa” program that would have allowed illegal immigrants to get in line for green cards if they paid fines and met other criteria. That was the easy part. The hard part would have been determining how long it would take for the Z-visa holders to get through the naturalization process; estimates ranged from eight to 20 years. The measure included a convoluted point system to rank applicants based on employment, education, age, family, health insurance, and homeownership. The bill layered in numerical ceilings to limit the green cards allotted each year in each category.
It was hard to imagine such a program actually being implemented in 2007. Now, it is unfathomable.
Those who oppose a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants are irritated that Gingrich chose to focus on mass deportation. They say there is a better way that doesn’t resort to the glib, yet impractical “round ’em up and ship ’em out” approach. Undocumented immigrants will leave on their own if they can’t find work, these advocates argue.
It’s hard to know if stepped-up worksite enforcement would, in fact, cause illegal immigrants to leave. Employment is the main reason that foreigners cross the border unlawfully, so it stands to reason that they would not come if they could not get jobs. The problem is that some employers desperately need immigrant labor, and that demand would remain even under the strictest of laws. The supply is there, too. One-fifth of Mexicans say they would come to the United States without authorization if given the opportunity, according to the Pew Research Center.
Illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for a long time have established roots that make leaving difficult. And that group is growing. Undocumented immigrants counted in the 2010 census have been here longer, on average, than those included in the previous census, the Pew Hispanic Center found. About one-third of undocumented adults (35 percent) have been in the country for 15 years or more, up from 16 percent in 2000.
Some immigration experts (notably, not the presidential candidates) predict that the United States will legalize the illegal population eventually, but will likely do it incrementally by target groups—farmworkers, technicians, military- or college-bound teens, refugees, nurses, and so on. That would whittle away at the overall numbers of illegals, perhaps making them less formidable.
If deportation were not an automatic given for undocumented workers, electronic verification of employees could actually help identify those who are here illegally and get them started on further legal proceedings such as paying fines and applying for temporary visas. “It’s called rolling registration. You make verification the vehicle for legalization,” said former Democratic Rep. Bruce Morrison, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee’s Immigration Policy Subcommittee from 1989 to ’91 and now runs his own lobby shop.
Voters and immigrants alike would need to buy in to this kind of system, with gusto. The attacks that greeted Gingrich’s legalization plan prove that at least some voters are far from embracing such a solution. Undocumented immigrants, for their part, have been willing to jump through many—but not unlimited—hoops to become legal. “If you make it so hard, or make the hurdles so high that people are afraid to do it, it won’t work,” Giovagnoli said. “You undermine your own cause.”
This article appears in the December 10, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.