The Politics of Immigration Reform

Students explore how the growing power of Latino voters improves chances for comprehensive immigration reform and consider some of the economic benefits of immigration.

To the Teacher: 

Immigration reform is currently a hot topic of debate in Washington, D.C. The issue has captured the political spotlight in part because of the rising influence of Latino voters. By the middle of this century, Hispanics are expected to comprise more than 30 percent of the U.S. population. In light of the growing power of Latino voters, some conservatives who had been opposed to reform now believe that the U.S. must accommodate the more than 11 million immigrants who are living in the country without documents.
This lesson will explore some of the political and economic ramifications of immigration that provide the context for the current debate in Washington, D.C. The first reading examines how shifting demographic patterns in the United States affect the prospects for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform. The second reading explores some of the economic benefits of immigration, countering the complaint that immigrants "will steal our jobs." Questions for student discussion follow each reading.



Student Reading 1:
Immigrant Demographics and the Politics of Reform

Immigration reform is a hot topic of debate in Washington, D.C. This issue has captured the political spotlight in large part because of the growing influence of Latino voters, especially in the last presidential election. Currently, Latino voters make up only a small part of the electorate. Yet their influence can be decisive, helping to determine outcomes in important swing states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, and Nevada. In light of the growing power of Latino voters, some conservatives who had been opposed to reform now believe that the U.S. must accommodate the more than 11 million immigrants who are living in the country without documents.
It is expected that by the middle of this century, Hispanics will comprise more than 30 percent of the U.S. population. Given these demographics, many political observers believe that the passage of immigration reform laws are more a question of "when" than "if."  A majority of Americans and many lawmakers already support policies that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants - though opinions differ on how easy or difficult that path should be. Conservatives risk alienating this huge voting bloc if they fail to get behind reform. A editorial published shortly after last year's elections explained the politics of the issue this way:

According to exit polls, 65 percent of voters support giving illegal immigrants in the U.S. a chance to apply for legal status. In a closely divided nation, that counts as a convincing supermajority. The Dream Act, which would ease the way to citizenship for young illegal immigrants who attend college or enlist in the military, should be part of a reform package, along with more visas for high-skills immigrants.
Republicans have two options. They can join the White House in shaping immigration reform, all the while knowing that the president will get the lion's share of credit. This is politically unappealing in the short term, which is certainly one reason Republicans have resisted it. However, the alternative promises even more dispiriting political consequences.
If Republicans again oppose immigration reform, they risk cementing their reputation as obstructionists and, in the process, tightening the Democrats' hold on a large and rapidly growing constituency. This is tantamount to political surrender, if not suicide. It would be a terrible outcome for the country and a self-inflicted wound that could hobble national Republican campaigns for years to come.
Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner seems to recognize that. "A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I'm confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all," he told ABC News.

Despite Boehner's claims, some commentators believe that Republicans will not be able to act on immigration reform, since a significant portion of the conservative grassroots base still opposes it. As the Washington Post reported:
According to the Post-ABC poll, 37 percent of Republicans say voting for a path to citizenship is a deal-breaker for them...
The Q poll, similarly, shows that 36 percent of Republicans would be less likely to support someone who votes for a path to citizenship, while 15 percent would be more likely.
In other words, for Republicans whose districts are so red that they only have to worry about their primaries — which is about two-thirds or three-fourths of House Republicans — it seems clear that voting against immigration reform is actually the more politically expedient path.

Also hanging in the balance is the content of any immigration reform bill Congress might pass.  The bill now before Congress already includes what the American Civil Liberties Union calls "severe obstacles for many immigrants who aspire to be citizens"  such as excluding people based on their employment status or income. It also mandates billions of additional dollars be spent on border enforcement and surveillance.  Republicans have pushed for amendments that would add to these restrictions.  
So although demographics are clearly in favor of meaningful reform, it's not yet certain that this reform will pass in the near future, or what the content of such a measure would be.  

For Discussion:

  1.  Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2.  Why do many political commentators now see immigration reform as an inevitability? What might delay passage of strong reform legislation?
  3.  According to the reading, why do changing demographics put the Republican Party in a difficult position on the issue of immigration reform?
  4.  Can you think of any other examples of how changing demographics have affected the debate around a given political issue? For example, has the growing number or young voters or women voters reshaped debate?  How?


Student Reading 2:
The Economic Benefits of Immigration

As the political discussion about immigration continues, an economic one is also raging. This debate revolves around the question: what is the impact of immigration on the economic opportunities available to all Americans?

Historically, America's biggest draw for immigrants—both documented and undocumented—has been the prospect of finding better jobs than they can find in their home countries. And one of the most common and persistent arguments against immigration is that new immigrants will "steal our jobs," threatening the employment opportunities of native-born workers. According to this position, a large influx of immigrants willing to work for low wages would undercut American citizens in the job market.
"[W]hen you legalize those who are in the country illegally," said Congressman Lamar Smith (R- Texas), "it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration." 
Not everyone agrees with this position, however. Among economists who have examined the issue, there is broad agreement that immigration has a positive effect on the American economy, ultimately benefiting U.S.-born workers.
This view is supported by a study released by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. As Giovanni Peri, an economist and author of the August 2010 study, writes:

Statistical analysis of state-level data shows that immigrants expand the economy's productive capacity by stimulating investment and promoting specialization. This produces efficiency gains and boosts income per worker. At the same time, evidence is scant that immigrants diminish the employment opportunities of U.S.-born workers...
[T]here is no evidence that immigrants crowd out U.S.-born workers in either the short or long run. Data on U.S.-born worker employment imply small effects, with estimates never statistically different from zero. The impact on hours per worker is similar. We observe insignificant effects in the short run and a small but significant positive effect in the long run. 
Peri calculates that the net effect of immigration on wages between 1990 and 2007 amounted to a $5,100 salary increase for the average American worker. Peri explains:
As young immigrants with low schooling levels take manually intensive construction jobs, the construction companies that employ them have opportunities to expand. This increases the demand for construction supervisors, coordinators, designers, and so on. Those are occupations with greater communication intensity and are typically staffed by U.S.-born workers who have moved away from manual construction jobs. This complementary task specialization typically pushes U.S.-born workers toward better-paying jobs, enhances the efficiency of production, and creates jobs.

Historically, many unions in the United States supported restrictions on immigration because they feared more open borders would create a large class of workers who could be used to undermine unions. They argued that immigrant workers would be willing to work for less money and fewer benefits, enabling employers to lower their standards.
In the last 15 years, however, unions have changed their position. Organizations such as the AFL-CIO (a national federation of many unions) now believe that legalization presents the best hope for all workers to protect themselves from on-the-job abuses and to organize for union representation without fear of retaliation from management. In January 2013, the AFL-CIO released a summary of several reports listing numerous reasons why American workers would benefit from immigration reform. The summary notes:

The billions of dollars a year in wage theft for both aspiring citizens and native workers will be significantly reduced. 
In New York, Los Angeles and Chicago alone, low-wage workers in immigrant-dense industries lose about $56 million a week in wage theft, according to the study Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers, which notes that the abuses are not limited to aspiring Americans. "The best inoculation against workplace violations [wage theft] is ensuring workers know their rights and have full status under the law to assert them."
Workers' rights—including the right to join a union—will be strengthened.

Today, writes [Ray Marshall, author of the study for Shared Prosperity: A Framework for Comprehensive Reform], unscrupulous employers threaten workers with retaliation, "when workers attempt to organize a union, file wage claims or exercise other workplace rights." Immigration reform with a path to citizenship that guarantees workplace rights for aspiring citizens will lessen the threat of employer retaliation and allow workers to defend their rights.

The fact that both economists and unions are lining up to promote the benefits of immigration is adding to the momentum for reform.
Another economic argument against immigration reform centers on the impact immigrants have on federal programs like Social Security and Medicare. Right-wing commentators quoted approvingly comments by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.): "Because of how these benefits are structured, low-wage illegal immigrants who are legalized will ultimately receive trillions more in benefits than they contribute to these programs." 

However, much of the evidence runs contrary to this argument. A policy brief by the National Council on Aging notes that "the children and grandchildren of immigrants will further enhance the future ratio of workers to beneficiaries for Social Security and Medicare," improving the health of both programs. 

For Discussion:

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. Why do most economists believe that immigration produces economic benefits?
  3. Why has organized labor changed its position on immigration in recent decades?
  4. According to economist Giovanni Peri, what happens to existing construction workers when new immigrants take over manually intensive construction jobs?
  5. The AFL-CIO argues that legalizing undocumented workers will encourage them to stand up for their rights in the workplace. What do you think? Do you believe that this is the case?
  6. What evidence is there that immigrants drain federal programs such as Medicare and Social Security? What evidence is there to the contrary?