David Coates

Immigration: The Story in 2009

There were three major areas of development on the immigration front in 2009.
1. The adverse effect of the recession on numbers and employment of both legal and illegal immigrants.
2. Clear support from AFL-CIO for comprehensive immigration reform; and
3. Changes in administration policy – away from ICE raids towards employer verification – as the internal debate continued on the viability of comprehensive immigration reform.

To take each in turn.

1. The adverse effect of the recession on numbers and employment of both legal and illegal immigrants

There was a considerable increase in hidden unemployment among illegal immigrants in 2009, as the industries in which their employment was largely concentrated (agriculture, construction, hospitality & leisure) took a disproportionate hit in the recession. “Pew estimates that undocumented workers held some 17% of construction jobs, for example, a sector which has slashed its payrolls by a fifth since the recession began.” (The Financial Times, November 18 2009). Obviously, accurate data here is impossible to gather, but proxies are available that suggest this: the amount of remittances flowing back into Mexico, the number of arrests at the border, the number of immigrants returning to Mexico, the flow of legal immigration from Mexico – all tell the same story. Remittance flows back to Mexico fell by 11% in the first half of 2009 (New York Times, July 14), and even reports of remittances being sent to the united States from Mexico (http://www.alternet.org/story/141464)

That is in keeping with the Migration Policy Institute finding that “people are essentially staying put at both ends…they’re basically riding out the storm” (Michael Fix, The Washington Post, July 22). In 2008 433,000 people went back to Mexico, down on the 479,000 in 2006; but 636,000 came from Mexico, down from the 1.3 million who came in 2006. Official estimates have the flow of illegal immigrants in 2008 at 724,000, the lowest since 1973, part of a fall of 100,000 in the number of foreign nationals living in the US in 2008. The number of Mexican-born people in the US in 2008 was actually 325,869 less than in 2007, according to the 2008 American Community Survey.

That left 11.4 million Mexican-born people living in the US in 2008, with Mexican-government data suggesting that maybe 226,000 fewer Mexicans left the country in the year to August 2008 than in the year to August 2007, a 25% fall in total. The vast majority of Mexicans emigrating do so to the United States. “If jobs are available,” the Pew Hispanic Center’s Jeffrey Passel said, “people come. If jobs are not available, people don’t come.” (New York Times May 15). The number of arrests at the border dropped 27% in the first five months of 2009, a trend which, if it continues, will bring the annual figure to a low level last seen in the early 1970s (The Washington Post, May 21). The Pew Hispanic currently estimates the number of undocumented immigrants in the US who came from Mexico at 7 million, 59% of the total (this, from their April 2009 Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States)

2. Clear support from AFL-CIO for comprehensive immigration reform

Organized labor has now clearly decided that non-organized immigrants hurt indigenous wages as well as suffering extreme exploitation themselves, and that the best way forward is comprehensive immigration reform that includes well-designed and supervised guest worker programs whose scale is fixed by the state of the US labor market. The policy statement issued in April 2009, designed in consultation with the EPI’s Ray Marshall, had 5 inter-related elements

· The creation of an independent commission (the Foreign Worker Adjustment Commission) to measure labor shortages and recommend the number and character of the immigration flows needed

· Rational border patrol and internal tracking scheme

· Effective work authorization process and enforcement of existing labor laws

· Humane adjustment of status of existing illegal immigrants while signaling there will be no other large-scale adjustments for any later illegal entrants to the US

· Improving but not extending existing temporary worker programs

(The details are at Ray Marshall, Immigration for Shared Prosperity www.epi.org)

Otherwise, many of the key interested parties remained exactly where they long have been on this issue: the Heritage Foundation firmly opposed to any kind of amnesty, the Cato Institute advocating free movement of labor through a guest worker system, and America’s Voice, among others, urging immediate and comprehensive immigration reform. If there was any significant change in the political formations that had been so effective in blocking comprehensive immigration reform in 2007-7, it came in the organized religious community. This time round, the Catholic Bishops’ support for immigration is likely to be reinforced by the active support of the National Association of Evangelical and the Southern Baptist Convention, both of whom have been persuaded by Latino evangelical leaders to view reform as an important measure of their Christian witness.

3. Changes in administration policy – away from ICE raids towards employer verification – as the internal debate continued on the viability of comprehensive immigration reform

Initial administration policy on immigration reform in 2009 was janus-faced – both good and bad from a progressive point of view. ICE raids on homes and businesses did initially continue under Janet Napolitano, the new head of Homeland Security. Napolitano then stopped this level of raids, turning instead to tougher enforcement of immigration laws on employers (the policy change was announced in late April); and she ended the Bush proposal to have employers fire workers with suspect Social Security numbers, preferring to use the E-verify voluntary electronic system instead (July 2009). But at the same time as Napolitano was quietly negotiating for possible legislation in 2010, she took a hard line on the issue of border security, extended the 287(g) program that deputizes local police departments to enforce immigration law, and vastly expanding the scale of identification checks in US prisons to facilitate the deportation of illegal immigrants convicted of crimes. The new sides of the Obama immigration policy were however linked: with the administration consciously using “tough enforcement to win support in a broader campaign for a congressional overhaul of the US immigration system next year” that would include “a way for millions of illegal immigrants in the US to win legal residency and citizenship.” (The Wall Street Journal, November 20 2009)

In July, the DHS reported that it had completed 300 miles of the required new border fencing; and in August, under heavy pressure from the Republican Party rank and file (tea party people and the like) the President was adamant that any reforms to the US health care system would not extend to cover those illegally here. (It was a promise that drew the famous “you lie” shout from Congressman Joe Wilson in September.) “We are expanding enforcement,” Napolitano was quoted as saying in August, “but I think in the right way”. (New York Times, August 3). That right way” involved written warnings to companies like American Apparel, who responded in September by dismissing 1800 immigrant workers (New York Times, July 3 2009 and September 30 2009). Apparently at least 654 companies thought to depend heavily on illegal immigrant labor were under active review by ICE case officers in 2009; and in border states Republican governors in particular continued to reinforce border patrolling in the pursuit of votes (for Gov. Rick Perry of Texas on this, see The Wall Street Journal September 19-20 2009). In November, the Obama administration announced it would audit an additional 1,000 firms for immigration violations (The Wall Street Journal, November 20 2009).

The President did, however, make clear in May his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for those already illegally here. He confirmed that commitment at a North American summit with Canada and Mexico in August, but by then conceded it was business for 2010, not 2009. “We can create a system,” he said, “in which you have an orderly process for people to come in, but we’re also giving an opportunity for those who are already in the United States to be able to achieve a pathway to citizenship so that they don’t have to live in the shadows” (quoted in The Washington Post, August 11 2009). Other members of the administration added their voice, conceding the complexities of the issues involved. Hillary Clinton declared in Mexico City in March 2009 that the US is partially responsible for cross-border criminality on which the Right put such emphasis in the immigration debate. The US, she said, feeds the Mexican drug trade: “our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade”, she said, “Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arms these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians.” (New York Times, March 26 2009). Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid told Hispanic leaders in June that comprehensive immigration reform remained one of his top three priorities, the others being health care reform and energy conservation. He promised a bill in 2009, while recognizing that the timetable might have to slip slightly because of the health care fight. Plans were in fact tabled in the Senate June 24 2009 – a move led by Charles Schumer in the absence of the ailing Edward Kennedy – to coincide with the first Obama White House conference on the issue (June 26). From that conference emerged a working party on immigration reform whose creation was widely welcomed by pro-immigration reform groups (“a turning point…the game is on” America’s Voice).

So indeed it was. In November Secretary Napolitano used the occasion of an address to the liberal Center for American Progress to confirm an intended push for comprehensive legislation early in 2010, legislation on what she called the “three-legged stool” of tougher enforcement against illegal immigrants and their employers, a streamlined system for legal immigration, and a “tough and fair pathway to earned legal status” for immigrants already illegally here. On the latter she said this. “Making sure these people become full taxpayers and pay their fair share will both benefit our economy and make it easier to enforce the laws against unscrupulous or exploitative employers.” (The full text is at http://www.americanprogress.org). By November, that is, the battle lines were drawn for a replay of the immigration reform debate of George W. Bush’s second term – a battle likely to be joined just as soon as the health care reform debate is over.

On December 15, Congressman Luis Gutierrez introduced The Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act (CIR ASAP) into the House, as – to quote him – “the first step in what I anticipate will be a six moth, all-out fight to pass comprehensive immigration reform that restores justice to our broken immigration system.” It will indeed be a fight. Contrast his stance with that of Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) who declared the Obama December job summit “fatally flawed because it did not directly address illegal immigration”.

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

2 Responses to “Immigration: The Story in 2009”

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