U.S. Immigration Reform: Good for the Americas?
June 13, 2013
On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate voted 82-15 to move forward on debating the comprehensive immigration reform bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.
The bipartisan bill, largely a response to growing public pressure to address the status of over 11 million undocumented immigrants living illegally in the United States, includes three key provisions: the extension of legal status to undocumented immigrants—and an eventual path to U.S. citizenship—the strengthening of border security, and bolstered work programs to facilitate the hiring of both high- and low-skilled foreign workers.
To be sure, immigration reform has captured the U.S. domestic political consciousness in recent weeks. However, what has largely been ignored is the extent to which comprehensive reform factors into U.S. foreign policy—especially in the Western hemisphere.
So given the United States’ sizeable immigrant and nonimmigrant Hispanic population, how would the bill affect U.S. relations with countries in Latin America?
Q1: Which immigrants in the United States would be most affected by passage of the bill?
A1: According to estimates from the Department of Homeland Security, migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador comprise a full 70 percent of the undocumented immigrants that enter the United States each year. The bill will clearly affect immigrants from Mexico and Central America most. The border security provisions focus on the southwest border of the United States—the primary point of entry for illegal immigrants from the region.
The domestic angle involves U.S. Census Bureau reports that highlight that Hispanics make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, making them the largest minority group in the country and growing.
This segment of the population is particularly informed regarding the status of the immigration debate. Even Americans of Latino descent who have lived here for generations or those Latino-Americans who entered the country legally and have been living here for decades are more likely to have been affected by the immigration system whether directly, or by way of friends or family members. Their opinions of their elected leaders are often influenced by these officials’ stances on immigration reform, or immigration related issues.
Q2: Why is passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill important for the United States?
A2: Besides having a significant part of the population not participating fully in the American society, the Hispanic makeup of the United States increasingly represents a sizeable electoral constituency and immigration reform tends to be a key issue in influencing the Hispanic (and particularly the Mexican-American) vote.
Because the overwhelming majority of Hispanics in the United States (a full 63 percent, according to the last Census) are of Mexican descent, Mexican American voters’ support is often pivotal for electoral success.
With Mexican-Americans’ (and, more broadly, Hispanics’) growing importance in U.S. electoral outcomes, both parties have sought the group’s support in elections. For better or worse, the prospect of wooing the broad range of Hispanic voters is a key factor in legislators’ support of comprehensive immigration reform.
On the other hand, immigration reform is largely seen as beneficial for the U.S. economy. Though the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States do so under the radar, they nonetheless are active participants in American society and in many cases would be willing contributors to the country’s economic and political life, as well.
With legalization, immigrants would be able to contribute to the consumption of goods and services, to pay more taxes (they now pay payroll tax and sales tax), to bolster U.S. businesses, and to raise domestic income. And by allowing high-skilled immigrants to enter the legal workforce, the bill would boost U.S. productivity.
Q3: What does immigration reform mean for U.S. standing in the region?
A3: Latin American people and their governments are closely following the U.S. immigration debate. This should come as no great surprise, as its outcome has the potential to affect millions of Latin Americans, their families, and their future interactions with the United States.
Comprehensive immigration reform would be positively received among Latin American citizens and governments, especially in those countries from which the majority of the U.S. immigrant population originates. First and foremost, a bill that provides legal status to the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States would help to reverse the region’s perception that the U.S. government treats Hispanics as second-class citizens, acknowledging what many feel is their existing right to U.S. residency and eventual citizenship.
Not unrelated is the effect comprehensive reform would have on the region’s governments. Because passing the bill would demonstrate the U.S. government’s willingness to work on issues important to its counterparts throughout the hemisphere—even when those issues stir up conflict at home—immigration reform could help redefine perceptions of the United States in the region; passing the bill would send the message that the U.S. government recognizes the region’s and its people’s importance in our own prosperity moving forward.
Conclusion: Though the political debate surrounding the issue has been heated, perhaps that is inevitable given the far-reaching implications of reform.
And while much of that debate has focused on border security and the U.S. economy, it is imperative that we keep in mind the work immigration reform would do in improving perceptions of the United States and advancing U.S. interests throughout the hemisphere.
Carl Meacham is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Daniela Cuéllar, intern scholar with the Americas Program at CSIS, provided research assistance.
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).
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