President Obama's executive orders regarding temporary relief for undocumented immigrants has created a great deal of controversy, but I have been trying to figure out what difference it might make demographically, as I noted yesterday. Pew Research Center estimates that we have a large (11.2 million) unauthorized immigrant population, and their research and that of others suggests that there are two main reasons: (1) the economy demands more workers than are being supplied by children currently being born in the US (although that may well change in the future as children of immigrants fill in the gaps); and (2) the tighter border security since 9/11 has essentially trapped unauthorized immigrants here because it is much harder than it used to be for people to cross the border back and forth as the economy and/or their family circumstances change. That may well account for the rise in the number of unaccompanied minor children coming to the US--parents do not have the freedom to go back to Mexico or El Salvador to either be with children who were left behind, nor to run the risk of accompanying them back to the U.S.
But, the point is that we need immigrants who are here to work. Most people who are "in line" to enter the country legally are dependents of current U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents and are unlikely to contribute much to the U.S. economy. Given the current structure of immigration laws in the U.S., there is no way to meet the economic demands of the country--that is one of the many reasons why immigration reform is necessary. Since the legal structure doesn't meet the country's needs, the undocumented immigrants are essentially "invited" to come and fill in the gaps. But the consequence is something very close to slavery, where people have no rights and no recourse to justice when they are exploited. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) anticipated this, in a way, by requiring that employers only hire workers who could prove their legal status. It turned out, however, that employers were not happy with this arrangement and so, outside of government, there is very little scrutiny of a potential worker's legal status--thus continuing the status quo of inviting people in to work--while saying we don't want them, even though we really do--and then continuing to exploit them.
Rubén Rumbaut just sent a link to a great op-ed piece in yesterday's Houston Chronicle by a law professor at the University of Houston that helps to sort out some of the legal issues that have led us to the current situation.
With his executive action, Obama has finally called the bluff of the critics, who now have the burden of persuasion in undertaking immigration reform. They can start by adopting the terms of the original Dream Act legislation offered by Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch over a decade ago, giving "Dreamers" a pathway to permanent, legal residence.At the end of the day, executive actions are only temporary and cannot change the legal status of an unauthorized immigrant. That can only be done by Congress, and we all have to push our Members of Congress to push John Boehner to put the Senate-passed immigration reform bill up for a House vote, so we can move past this horrible moment in history.
We have invested in these children due to the requirements of Plyler v. Doe, the 1982 Supreme Court decision that allowed children who are in the U.S. without documents to attend free public schools irrespective of their immigration status. Who seriously wants to remove the students and lose the investment we have made in them?
And we can thoroughly vet the arriving Central American children to see if their claims are credible. At the least, we should provide them with advocates and lawyers. That would be a down payment on immigration reform, perhaps leading to a more comprehensive version.