Analysis

Immigration Reform Needs a New Strategy

Buried in the budget bill is the detritus of 20 years of attempted overhauls.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy, a visiting professor at Western Washington University, and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
A metal fence limits access to the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Nogales, Arizona, on Feb. 9, 2019.
A metal fence limits access to the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Nogales, Arizona, on Feb. 9, 2019. ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP via Getty Images

It’s certainly better than nothing. After 20 years of disagreeing on a major overhaul of the United States’ broken and outdated immigration laws, U.S. Congress finally seems on the verge of rectifying at least some of the system’s worst indignities and dysfunctions. But whether or not these fixes pass, it is time to leave the vision of a comprehensive reform behind and start taking the slow, necessary steps to build an immigration system that helps the United States meet the challenges of the 21st century—especially growing competition from China.

Buried in U.S. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better package, which now awaits a vote in the House and Senate, is the detritus of two decades of congressional efforts to reform U.S. immigration laws. Gone are lofty visions of root-and-branch reform: a U.S.-Mexico partnership on migration, sweeping changes to welcome the world’s best and brightest, or bipartisan cooperation to secure the nation’s borders. What survived the chopping block are a handful of narrower measures that would offer greater certainty for some temporary visa holder categories and lift the deportation threat for many unauthorized immigrants who have lived in the shadows for decades. Democrats hope to push these through on a straight partisan vote as part of the broader budget reconciliation bill, but success depends on the whims of the Senate’s parliamentarian, who has yet to rule on whether such measures can be included in a fiscal bill.

That the goal of “comprehensive immigration reform” has come down to such narrow technical maneuvering is a sorry end to legislative efforts that held such promise. In 2013, the U.S. Senate had 68 votes from both parties for a bill that would have opened the country’s doors to the world’s most talented immigrants, provided new funds and tools to secure the borders, and offered millions of unauthorized migrants a chance at citizenship. But the effort was killed in a Republican-led House that was already on its journey to Trumpism. A similar bill died in the Senate in 2007. Before that, former U.S. President George W. Bush’s efforts to cooperate with Mexico on broader immigration and border reform died with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Many, myself included, hoped Biden would be bolder in pushing another comprehensive solution past Republican opposition, but his narrow majority and the veto wielded by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema has made that impossible.

It’s certainly better than nothing. After 20 years of disagreeing on a major overhaul of the United States’ broken and outdated immigration laws, U.S. Congress finally seems on the verge of rectifying at least some of the system’s worst indignities and dysfunctions. But whether or not these fixes pass, it is time to leave the vision of a comprehensive reform behind and start taking the slow, necessary steps to build an immigration system that helps the United States meet the challenges of the 21st century—especially growing competition from China.

Buried in U.S. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better package, which now awaits a vote in the House and Senate, is the detritus of two decades of congressional efforts to reform U.S. immigration laws. Gone are lofty visions of root-and-branch reform: a U.S.-Mexico partnership on migration, sweeping changes to welcome the world’s best and brightest, or bipartisan cooperation to secure the nation’s borders. What survived the chopping block are a handful of narrower measures that would offer greater certainty for some temporary visa holder categories and lift the deportation threat for many unauthorized immigrants who have lived in the shadows for decades. Democrats hope to push these through on a straight partisan vote as part of the broader budget reconciliation bill, but success depends on the whims of the Senate’s parliamentarian, who has yet to rule on whether such measures can be included in a fiscal bill.

That the goal of “comprehensive immigration reform” has come down to such narrow technical maneuvering is a sorry end to legislative efforts that held such promise. In 2013, the U.S. Senate had 68 votes from both parties for a bill that would have opened the country’s doors to the world’s most talented immigrants, provided new funds and tools to secure the borders, and offered millions of unauthorized migrants a chance at citizenship. But the effort was killed in a Republican-led House that was already on its journey to Trumpism. A similar bill died in the Senate in 2007. Before that, former U.S. President George W. Bush’s efforts to cooperate with Mexico on broader immigration and border reform died with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Many, myself included, hoped Biden would be bolder in pushing another comprehensive solution past Republican opposition, but his narrow majority and the veto wielded by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema has made that impossible.

Immigration measures in the House reconciliation package, if they survive the Senate gauntlet, would help a bit. One of the more archaic features of the U.S. immigration system is a relic of the 1990 Immigration Act that limits green cards for citizens of any single country to just 7 percent of total green cards issued each year in each immigration category. The result is immigrants from large countries like India or Mexico face waits of years—even decades—to get green cards. Hundreds of thousands of highly educated Indian workers, for example, are stuck on temporary work visas and therefore tied to their current U.S. jobs and employers as they wait for their turn in the green card backlog.

Republicans are already plotting their midterm election strategy around the charge that Biden favors “open borders.”

Would-be migrants are increasingly avoiding the United States: From 2016 to 2019, the number of Indian graduate students in engineering and science fell by 25 percent at U.S. universities while the number studying in Canada doubled in the same period. The new reconciliation proposal would recapture any green cards that have been left unused each year, allowing as many as a million of those waiting in line to get a permanent immigrant status more quickly. It’s a minor fix, but it could help the United States regain at least some of its fading attractiveness.

A second measure would offer immigration “parole,” or temporary legal status, to millions of unauthorized migrants who have built their lives in the United States for at least a decade. The measure falls well short of the direct path to citizenship that has long been the bedrock demand among Democrats, showing the party’s growing maturity and pragmatism on the issue. It would allow migrants who are already deeply embedded in their communities to live and work without constant fear of deportation, allowing them to seek better jobs and working conditions. Republicans are already howling at the measure as an “amnesty” and are sure to make it an issue in the 2022 midterm elections. Never mind that it was former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who was once a Republican hero, who signed the only true amnesty for undocumented immigrants back in 1986. That era’s GOP still understood that immigration was one of the United States’ foundational strengths. To Reagan, immigration was part of his view of the country as a “shining city upon a hill”—a land of both liberty and opportunity.

Reagan’s legacy may offer a path forward after so many failed attempts at reform. He understood that competition with the Soviet Union was as much about values as it was about arms. A United States that welcomed immigrant contributions would be a powerful rejoinder to a Russia that tried to block its own citizens from leaving. Washington finds itself in a similar clash of values today. China has shown the enormous technological progress that can be made when an authoritarian state sets its mind on achieving economic goals and funnels resources into the task. But the United States has long embraced the opposite approach—that innovation and technological leadership come from openness and letting the world’s best minds go to work on big problems. U.S. leadership in COVID-19 vaccine development and its recent breakthrough antiviral treatments from Merck and Pfizer are evidence of that strength.

Just as he did with the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed last week, Biden should reach out to Republicans and offer to work together to reform the rules for high-skilled immigration. Eliminating country limits on visas, speeding up green cards for foreign students with advanced degrees from U.S. universities in science and math, and protecting the children of immigrants on temporary work visas from losing their status when they turn 21 have all enjoyed bipartisan support in the past. Such measures would make the United States far more attractive for the high-skilled immigrants who will be vital for maintaining U.S. technological leadership in competition with China. Indeed, while there are significant security challenges to be addressed, the United States should hold the doors open for China’s best and brightest, encouraging them to study and stay in the United States. Freed of the baggage of “comprehensive reform,” it should be possible to win bipartisan support for such measures.

The second priority should be reestablishing a reasonable level of control over Mexico’s southern border. Scenes of chaos on the border have helped stoke China’s preferred narrative of democratic dysfunction and a United States no longer capable of basic governmental functions. At home, Republicans are already plotting their midterm election strategy around the charge that Biden favors “open borders.”

The reconciliation bill includes some additional resources for the border, but more are needed. The ingredients are well understood: Large-scale illegal migration from Mexico in the 1990s and early 2000s was slowed after the Republican and Democratic administrations spent billions of dollars on border enforcement and expanded temporary programs like the H-2A agricultural worker visa and the H-2B seasonal worker visa.

With most new arrivals from Central America, Haiti, and elsewhere now seeking protection under asylum laws, the same surge in resources is needed to ensure prompt and fair decisions on asylum applications—not years of waiting that encourage even those with weak claims to head north. Congress also needs to create new temporary work options for citizens of countries other than Mexico, offering alternatives to the many Central Americans and others who are driven from home more by deprivation than fear. The post-pandemic labor shortage could make such new programs especially attractive as an immediate fix.

It is hard not to be discouraged by the meager results of the past two decades’ congressional immigration efforts. The past decade’s political history might have been written differently if earlier efforts, such as the 2013 reforms, had passed with bipartisan support, taking the issue off the agenda for at least a few years. But the push for comprehensive immigration reform has gone as far as it will go. It is time for Congress and the president to chart another path.

Edward Alden is a columnist at Foreign Policy, the Ross distinguished visiting professor at Western Washington University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Failure to Adjust: How Americans Got Left Behind in the Global Economy. Twitter: @edwardalden

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