Many people put off talking about immigration reform until “America regains control of its borders.” But, according to Douglas Massey’s recent CNN article, that moment has arrived. He says:
According to estimates from the Mexican Migration Project, which I co-direct, the rate of new undocumented migration from Mexico dropped to zero in 2008 for the first time in 50 years. This remarkable event partly reflects the drop in labor demand in the context of a deep economic recession, but it also stems from a massive increase in border enforcement. Since 1990, the size of the Border Patrol has increased by a factor of five and its budget by a factor of 13.
While this increased enforcement surely contributed to decreased immigration, it also likely decreased the outflow of immigrants who were already here.
At present, therefore, new undocumented migrants are not heading northward; former undocumented migrants are coming back in very small numbers; and settled undocumented residents are staying put. As a result of these trends, the population of undocumented U.S. residents peaked at 12.6 million persons in 2008 and fell to 10.8 million in 2009, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Net undocumented migration is now slightly negative.
Many immigrants are also employed as guest workers; in fact, from 1990 to 2008, the number of Mexicans admitted with temporary work visas grew from 17,000 to 361,000 per year. Many other migrants are becoming citizens. For example, the number of legal Mexican immigrants attaining U.S. citizenship went from 18,000 in 1990 to 232,000 in 2008.
In sum, of the four principal components of comprehensive immigration reform, three have already been substantially achieved. The border is now under control and net-undocumented migration has fallen below zero; a guest worker program has been created to bring in more than 360,000 temporary Mexican migrants per year; and legal immigrants have increasingly taken it upon themselves to “expand” the quotas by naturalizing and sponsoring the entry of immediate relatives outside of the numerical quotas.
According to Massey, one main accomplishment remains: the creation of a pathway to legalization for long-term, undocumented residents of the United States.
Somewhere around three million of these people entered the country as minors. They did not make the decision to violate U.S. immigration law and should not be held responsibilities for choices made by their parents. In the absence of a criminal record or other disqualifying circumstances, those who entered as minors should be given an immediate and unconditional amnesty and be allowed to proceed with their lives in the only country that most of them know.
For their part, undocumented migrants who entered as adults should be offered a temporary legalization that confers the right to live and work in the United States for some extended period, during which they would be able to accumulate points ultimately to qualify them for legal permanent residence. Points would be awarded for socially desirable behaviors such as paying taxes, learning English, studying civics, holding a steady job, owning a home, parenting U.S. citizen children and generally staying out of trouble. Once a certain minimum threshold of points is achieved, migrants would be allowed to pay a fine as restitution for violating the law and then, having paid their debt to society, get on with their lives as legal permanent residents of the United States. We are much closer to the ultimate goals of immigration reform than most people realize.