What Are the Domestic and International Implications of Inaction on U.S. Immigration Reform?

  • photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/138599986
    May 22, 2014

    For the time being here in the United States, immigration reform has all but fallen off Congress’s policy agenda, victim to the partisan divisiveness that has characterized the legislative process in recent years. But as that stalemate persists, it proves ever more problematic for the country’s domestic and foreign affairs.

    With no prospects of seeing an overhauling reform to federal immigration laws, state governments in the United States are increasingly taking the issue into their own hands—in some cases even refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities in deporting immigrants and in others passing laws allowing for citizens’ arrests of suspected illegal immigrants. And the many deportations that are still carried out often send immigrants back to highly precarious, even life-threatening realities farther south.

    The countless immigrants—among them tens of thousands of children—flowing into the United States across our southern border each year speak so clearly to the dilapidated state of the U.S. immigration framework. But why does fixing this system matter for the United States and for the region?

    Q1: What are the challenges that have developed out of the current immigration system?

    A1: According to even conservative estimates, upwards of 11 million undocumented immigrants are currently living within U.S. borders—the vast majority of those having come from our neighbors to the south. And with no functional framework to accommodate the seasonal labor that fuels many U.S. farms, the circular flow of illegal migration continues.

    Over the past four years, an estimated half-million undocumented immigrants entered the United States across the border with Mexico. This year alone, some 60,000 of those illegal immigrants are expected to be children, many of them originating in the impoverished and cartel-violence-torn countries of Central America.

    And these numbers are only rising. This year’s child migration estimates nearly tripled last year’s figures, and are some eight times higher than they were in 2011.

    There is, on one hand, an argument to be made that insufficient border policing and enforcement could serve as a driving factor for these illegal migrant flows. But realistically, this paints a very limited picture. Were economic and security conditions different—were they better—in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, the primary countries of origin, fewer immigrants would find the northward trek worth their while.

    Many of these migrants (and especially the children) are sent to the United States to safeguard them from rampant violence, criminality, and poverty that characterize their home countries. Economic opportunity, a perception driven by the extreme disparity in wage earnings between the United States and its Central American neighbors, serves as a powerful magnet for laborers from the south. And in many cases, the children crossing the border claim to be fleeing from domestic abuse at home—or to be the victims of heartbreaking networks of human trafficking.

    It is the children that highlight one of the system’s biggest failures in coordination and enforcement of current immigration policies. When unaccompanied children illegally cross U.S. borders, they are frequently treated by law as adults—and many of them are devoid of legal assistance, detained indefinitely.

    Q2: Why does this issue matter for U.S. domestic policy?

    A2: Here in the United States, immigration policy (and the reform of it) are typically seen as domestic policy issues—and for good reason.

    Enforcement of immigration legislation is the dual responsibility of federal agencies and local officials. But when children cross into the United States, for example, their care falls to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which, despite its best efforts, remains short staffed and underfunded to deal with a problem growing so fast and looming so large.

    And the opportunities available to illegal immigrants here in the United States are linked to domestic policy and its enforcement as well. With economic opportunity and standards of living higher here than in our neighbors to the south, immigration flows will continue.

    As an issue of federal policy, the subject falls squarely under the purview of the U.S. Congress. With congressmen tied inextricably to the political bases that support them, any proposed reforms to the immigration system stir up heated debate (and, as a result, seemingly endless delays) over if, how, and to what extent immigration policy should change—even with public opinion trending ever more in favor of reform.

    But these same legislators are more accountable to Hispanic voters that at any time in the past. Some 17 percent of the U.S. population—the country’s largest minority—is of Hispanic descent. Legislators’ continued willingness to sidestep this issue suggests a lack of legislative foresight, as they are (supposedly) forced to choose between pleasing their traditional constituents and wooing the growing Hispanic voter base.

    Q3: Why does this issue matter for U.S. foreign policy?

    A3: Most of the immigrants entering the United States originate in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. While these countries remain close commercial partners of the United States, issues of wage disparity and an imbalance of economic opportunity continually drive immigrants northward in search of better paying jobs and higher standards of living.

    And much of U.S. policy toward these countries revolves around security cooperation—no great surprise, given the rampant violence and instability caused by the cartel- and gang-driven drug war plaguing the region and most deeply entrenched in these same countries.

    But that same problem—illegal drug trafficking, transnational organized crime, and the associated violence—is among the primary drivers of immigrant flows (and particularly illegal flows of children) to the United States. So to the extent that addressing endemic security threats in Central America impacts immigration, immigration is a foreign policy issue.

    And the issue’s relevance to foreign policy flows far deeper than that. Passing immigration reform would in many ways help to reverse the region’s perception that the U.S. government treats Hispanics as second-class citizens, demonstrating to the region’s governments that the United States is willing to work on issues important to its counterparts throughout the hemisphere—even when those issues stir up conflict here at home.

    Reforming the system could send the powerful message that the United States sees the importance of the region and its people to our own prosperity moving forward—not just to our efforts to stymie transnational crime. And the ripple effects of that message would be immeasurable, potentially opening long-shut doors to furthering cooperation with our regional neighbors.

    Conclusion: The question of immigration reform has been repeatedly relegated to the back burner of the U.S. legislative agenda for the past two decades. But turning a blind eye to the brokenness of our current system hasn’t solved its many problems, nor will it moving forward.

    The issue is far too important to continue to ignore. So many stand to gain from reform to our system, given its “intermestic” nature (its relevance to both international and domestic policy). And while many of those who will benefit from reform are themselves illegal immigrants, the allure of reform is much wider and deeper than that.

    Insufficient border policing and lackluster enforcement of existing immigration legislation certainly grease the proverbial wheels for migrants seeking entry into the United States. But ultimately, it is not poor enforcement alone that motivates their decisions to leave home—rather, it is a fundamental lack of opportunity coupled with rampant violence and transnational crime in their countries of origin.

    The system is plagued with loopholes and flaws that perpetuate the injustices undocumented immigrants face, and the failure to fix that system damages domestic policy coordination and the foreign policy reputation of the United States alike.​

    Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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