There are just under 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States today, according to figures released last year by the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Center. And the number of illegal immigrants is growing, according to U.S. Border Patrol estimates. That means immigration reform may become a priority again.
It is about time. This is a problem Congress should have addressed long ago. Instead, it has left the issue largely to the president.
In response, President Obama has acted to address illegal immigration, although there is only so much he can do. One way he has acted is through deportation. His administration has deported an estimated 2 million illegal immigrants, a dramatic increase over the Bush presidency. Indeed, critics have named him “deporter in chief.”
Yet, those deportations have been targeted. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 75 percent of those deported during the Obama administration have been convicted criminals. Moreover, the deportation effort primarily is a border activity. In 2013, nearly two-thirds of deportations were of people who were in the process of entering the U.S. illegally. Those who already live in the U.S., and have no criminal record, are unlikely to be deported today. Again according to the Migration Policy Institute, 85 percent of those flagged by the Immigration and Naturalization Services for possible deportation were not deported, primarily because they lacked a criminal record.
But these figures still suggest that a group of people constituting over 3 percent of the nation’s population is operating without legal status within the United States. These people are the most vulnerable to exploitation by bad employers. Plus, many still avoid government for fear of exposure. The Obama administration’s more humane approach to deportation has not resolved these problems.
What should be done?
One proposal is to provide a route to permanent residency and citizenship. This is controversial because while many consider this a compassionate step to integrating immigrants into society, others view it as a reward for illegal behavior. Indeed, it is a sticking point that has stalled immigration reform in Congress.
Yet, even though it becomes a tool for more partisan contention, this aspect of immigration reform may be less important to those actually affected — the immigrant community. According to the Pew Research Center, far more Hispanics are interested in just being able to live and work with legal status in the United States than in becoming citizens. Nearly six of 10 Hispanic immigrants say they worry about a family member or friend being deported. And 55 percent say it is more important to be able to live and work in the U.S. legally without the fear of being deported, while only 35 percent considering a pathway to citizenship as more important. One indication of the lower significance for citizenship is the fact that only 36 percent of legal immigrants from Mexico have become U.S. citizens.
Instead of becoming stuck on an issue that even the Hispanic community is not as concerned about, Congress should move forward with those aspects of immigration reform that can be achieved this year. One such consensual proposal is to increase the number of temporary work visas to allow more immigrants to work in the U.S. legally. Congress has focused on visas for highly skilled people, but the real issue is visas for low skilled or unskilled workers. Those jobs are more likely to go begging and employers in these industries rely heavily on undocumented workers.
For example, such a reform would allow those currently working illegally in the agriculture industry to apply for temporary work visas and legalize their status. According to the U.S. Labor Department, that constitutes 53 percent of the nation’s 2.5 million farm workers.
Concentrating on temporary worker visas would not settle the issue of allowing permanent resident status or even citizenship. Those should be resolved another day. But the more pressing need is to offer some legal status to those who contribute to the nation’s economy, but who currently carry no documents. Such a move would transform many illegal immigrants into legal temporary workers who will no longer live in the shadows.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.