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Immigration policy debates in the 2012 election

By Louis Desipio


Popular concern about US immigration policy has increased dramatically over the past two decades. During this period, the resources and technologies for enforcement of immigration law have also increased considerably. The remainder of US immigration policy — particularly questions of how many immigrants the United States should admit, who should be eligible to immigrate, and what should be done about immigrants resident in the United States who reside in the country without legal status — see much less consensus. President Obama and Governor Romney propose starkly different immigration policies, particularly on this final question of what to do about unauthorized immigrants resident in the United States.

In the 2008 presidential race, candidate Obama made a commitment concerning immigration that he didn’t fulfill. In that promise, however, can be found the roots of the 2012 Obama campaign’s approach to immigration policy. The promise was he would propose “comprehensive immigration reform” in his first year as president. The exact meanings of comprehensive reform weren’t defined, but broadly included additional enforcement particularly enforcement focused on employers, legalization for many of the unauthorized immigrants resident in the United States, guest worker programs, and perhaps, a change to the foundation of eligibility for legal immigration to the United States. The specifics proved irrelevant as Obama didn’t make immigration reform a priority in his first two years of office. In the next two years, Republican control of the House of Representatives made unlikely any major immigration legislation that could receive support from the Republican House majority and the Obama administration. Obama and the Democrats did seek to pass a limited form of legalization that targeted young adults who had been brought to the United States as children and had graduated from high school (the DREAM Act). Although this bill passed the House and received support from a majority of US Senators, it was unable to overcome a filibuster in the US Senate led by the Republicans.

Monumento a los migrantes muertos al cruzar la Línea, Tijuana-San Diego. Photo by Tomás Castelazo, 2006. Creative Commons License.

Realizing that comprehensive reform was unlikely, Obama increasingly used executive branch authority to focus enforcement efforts away from the young adults who would potentially benefit from the DREAM Act as well as away from unauthorized immigrants who had legal immigrant- or US citizen-family members. In the months before the election, the Obama administration established a two-year legal status that would allow young adults who had migrated without authorization to the United States as children to be able to remain in the country legally and to work. These efforts were criticized by advocates of immigration restriction, but serve as a core of the Obama approach to immigration in the 2012; Obama calls for an immigration system that is more “fair, efficient, and just.” These positions don’t reflect a move away from a call for comprehensive immigration reform, but instead a tactical recognition that, in the contemporary political environment, neither party will compromise on immigration. Obama also used the power of the presidency to oppose state laws that sought to use state police to enforce immigration law and to challenge these state efforts in the federal courts.

Going into the campaign, Governor Romney didn’t emphasize his positions on immigration policy. These included largely non-controversial positions such as using legal immigration to attract more highly skilled immigrants and to make guest worker programs more efficient for employers, with few specifics on how he would achieve either goal. The Republican Party primaries, however, shifted immigrant enforcement and support for state efforts to enforce immigration law to the center of the Romney immigration agenda. At the core of Romney’s positions is his support for “self-deportation,” the proposition that laws and public policy should make life so difficult for unauthorized immigrants to live in the United States that they will voluntarily return to the their countries of origin. Central to this notion of making life more difficult for the unauthorized is support for state laws to empower state and local authorities to enforce immigration law. Many states have passed such laws over the last several years. Perhaps the best known is Arizona’s SB 1070, which was the subject of Supreme Court review in 2012. Romney has also promised to veto the DREAM Act should it come to his desk as president.

The immigration debate between the two candidates, then, largely turns on the question of what to do about unauthorized migrants resident in the United States. Neither candidate has concrete positions on whether the standards for legal immigration — which results in more than one million immigrants to the United States each year — should be changed as some have proposed, or whether the United States should expand its programs to allow for short-term guest worker migrations to the United States (other than Romney’s call to make them more efficient). Each of these policy debates would need to be part of any serious reform of US immigration policy.

Louis Desipio is a Professor in the Departments of Political Science and Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. His research interests include Latino politics, the process of political incorporation of new and formerly excluded populations into U.S. politics, and public policies shaping immigrant incorporation such as immigration, immigrant settlement, naturalization, and voting rights. He is the author of numerous scholarly books and articles including Counting on the Latino Vote: Latinos as a New Electorate (University of Virginia Press, 1996) and “Immigrant Incorporation in an Era of Weak Civic Institutions: Immigrant Civic and Political Participation in the United States.” (American Behavioral Scientist, 2011). He is also the author of the forthcoming article “Naturalization,” which will be included at the launch of Oxford Bibliographies in Latino Studies.

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