Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Start to More Sensible Immigration Policies May Just be Around the Corner

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Washington is abuzz this week. Yes, Beyonce will be sharing the stage with Garth Brooks at Sunday’s Lincoln Memorial concert, but a new tune also may be developing in regard to U.S. immigration policies. Both the incoming administration and congressional leaders have signaled that the chorus for ’09 may yet be a new, practical approach to fairer treatment of our nation’s immigrants.

For one, imminent changes are on the horizon at Homeland Security. At yesterday’s confirmation hearings, Secretary-designee Janet Napolitano again emphasized her sharp differences with the Bush administration’s program to build a fence along the Mexican border: “I don’t think I would be giving good advice to the committee if I said that’s the best way to protect our border.” And Napolitano knows. As the Arizona governor, she has first-hand experience with securing the border. But more impotantly, under Napolitano, fixing the “broken” U.S. immigration system would be a priority.

This week we also saw President-elect Obama continuing the 28-year tradition of the U.S. president-elect meeting with his Mexican counterpart prior to inauguration. At a joint news conference with President Felipe Calderón, Obama underscored the importance of the bilateral relationship, vowing to open “a new page” on topics such as immigration. In the meeting, the Mexican press reports that Obama committed to enacting immigration reform that includes family unification. However, that news didn’t make it into the U.S. media.

But signs that sensible immigration reform is on the horizon were not limited to just the incoming executive branch. Congress, too, may take it up as early as September. Among his legislative priorities, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is calling immigration one of his top ten. And earlier this month on “Meet the Press,” he said that he would work across the aisle to get a deal. Reid noted that he has “McCain’s word that he’s going to work real, real hard on immigration reform.” Of course, McCain was the Republican leader behind the 2006 and 2007 attempts at national reform.

But what should immigration reform entail? In the Summer 2008 Americas Quarterly, Tamar Jacoby called for an answer that doesn’t just respond to the undocumented immigrants already here, but one that fixes the complex and failure-ridden immigration system. Perhaps a new look is needed for the entire premise on which visas are awarded so that they respond to changing labor needs. Why fix annual visas when employment needs are going to ebb and flow? But, as Obama has noted, the federal government must still step up and bring “the 12 million people who are here illegally out of the shadows.” That combined with securing the borders and punishing employers who exploit immigrant labor would be part of his potential package that begins to address the nation’s unwieldy immigration system.

During the campaign, Obama called immigration “a priority I will pursue from my very first day.” Well, that day is about here and all signs are increasingly pointing in the right direction. The economy will and should come first but immigration reform may yet be on the horizon.


Jason Marczak is deputy director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. He previously served as senior editor of Americas Quarterly and director of policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

Tags: Immigration, Obama, US
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