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America's immigration impasse is self-inflicted. It doesn't have to be.

Analysis: Amid debates over the border, "Dreamers" and sweeping immigration bills, experts say politics ignores the obvious: Immigration laws must continually be adjusted, reformed and revised.
Image: Asylum-seeking migrants from Central America, who were airlifted from Brownsville to El Paso, Texas, and deported from the U.S., in Ciudad Juarez
Asylum-seeking migrants from Central America, who were airlifted from Brownsville to El Paso, Texas, and deported from the U.S., walk outside a National Institute of Migration office at the Paso del Norte International border bridge in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on Tuesday.Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters

America’s immigration impasse — an endless loop across different administrations — is largely self-inflicted, because Congress has repeatedly failed to acknowledge one simple thing: Immigration happens.

Accordingly, immigration laws must be continually adjusted, reformed and revised, experts say.

“People will always want to come to the U.S., and the U.S. will always need people,” said former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who was a top immigration adviser to President George W. Bush.

Until there is a system that allows enough legal immigration to meet the economy’s needs, there will be illegal immigration, Gutierrez said.

“That’s just part of how our economy is set up. It’s part of demographics," Gutierrez said. "Our birthrate is not high enough to be able to fill the needs of our economy.” 

The coronavirus pandemic reinforced the importance of immigrant labor to the American economy, including labor by the undocumented.

It opened many Americans’ eyes to the precariousness of the U.S. food supply, which depends on immigrant and undocumented farmworkers and meat plant workers, as well as to other immigrants’ roles as essential workers, such as home health care aides, nurses and paramedics.

All of those people and many other immigrants, including young immigrants — often called “Dreamers” based on never-passed proposals in Congress called the DREAM Act — will play a key role in helping the economy recover from its pandemic bust.

But immigration requires periodic calibration, and the economics and the changing patterns are lost in the politics.

“People are going to move — as they are all around the world — where they think they can find places to better feed their children. That’s the bottom line, and that’s the history of migration to the United States,” said Luis Fraga, director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Another generation in legal limbo

The Biden administration is grappling with how to process and house children and teens crossing the border. Many minors have cited a simple reason for coming — to reunite with a parent who’s already here, part of a previous migration.

Meanwhile, millions of “Dreamer” young adults have spent most of their lives in the U.S., having immigrated as children but lacking legal status. Most immigrant farmworkers, who make up a large and essential part of the workforce, don’t have the protection of work permits or green cards.

The House passed two bills to give “Dreamers” and farmers a path to legalization, but Senate Republicans have pretty much said it’s dead on arrival — they want a sweeping immigration bill that also tackles border enforcement.

The immigration impasse has lasted long enough for multiple generations of young immigrants to have come of age here and moved into adult lives of limbo, stagnating their economic mobility, along with their communities'.

In 2012, President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a stopgap fix after years of congressional refusal to legalize immigrants who had been here since they were young children but lacked legal status.

Immigrants with DACA protection still face possible removal from the country, as the Trump administration threatened, but they have two-year intervals of stays of deportation and permits to work. Many states grant other benefits, such as driver’s licenses and in-state college tuition rates in their home states.

The first measure to legalize young immigrants was introduced in 2001 as the DREAM Act. Passage of the legislation or something like it happened so many times that it spawned the moniker “Dreamers,” just as those who have benefited from Obama’s DACA program use “Dacamented” to refer to the quasi-legal status they are in.

The House-passed bill facing opposition in the Senate would deal with some of the mostly young 4 million of the 11 million undocumented people in the country, significantly boosting their economic prospects while closing a chapter in the long immigration impasse.

The majority of the undocumented population is Latino, and the population is young — which means it’s a significant part of the current and future American workforces.

Revive a past immigration tool?

Although the current bills are an important step, they should be seen as part of a continuous process, experts said.

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act made it possible for 3 million people to become legal residents. But contrary to some thinking at the time, it didn’t end the issue of illegal immigration — an example of the perils of relying on the one-time-only approach.

Immigration laws must be “constantly reviewed,” “nimble” and sensitive to new developments, Fraga said.

A regular legalization tool, known as the registry date, already exists in immigration law. In 1929, the law set the first date at June 3, 1921, and immigrants who could show that they had been continually in the U.S. since then could apply for legal residence. 

The date was updated over the decades, and it was last adjusted so that anyone in the country before Jan. 1, 1972, was eligible to apply for legal permanent residency.

In a 2010 report, the bipartisan Migration Policy Institute, or MPI, recommended reviving the registry date. 

The institute’s analysis of 2018 data found that 60 percent of the undocumented population has been in the U.S. at least 10 years. 

“If you set a registry date for 15 years in the past, that date just rolls [forward], or say 20,” said MPI co-founder Doris Meissner, who was commissioner of the now-dismantled Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration.

“Once people are in the country for that period of time, we should adopt a statute-of-limitations approach,” she said.

MPI proposed that Congress be required to set a new date and that it review it and consider whether it should be reset every five years.

But Meissner said that given today’s environment and the politics in Congress, she has little faith that lawmakers would adopt a registry date.

Ultimately, the registry date is a “workaround” for the country’s “grossly inadequate immigration laws,” Meissner said. 

“What you really want to do is have a managed system and have the public have confidence that the government is minding the store,” she said. “But the government isn’t minding the store right now because it doesn’t have the tools.”

Democrats have drafted sweeping immigration legislation based on the proposals of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, including measures to legalize the 11 million undocumented.

Meissner said the bill seeks to build in legalization programs to address future flows of immigration, which the 1986 amnesty law failed to do. 

Legislation in the 1990s tried to address future immigration flows, but it was adopted just before a shift in the labor market — when the country stopped producing younger workers, Meissner said. 

Immigration patterns change. So should laws.

In the ’90s, most immigrants crossing the border were single men coming to the U.S. for work — fulfilling that need — said Veronica Vargas Stidvent, a former assistant secretary of labor for U.S. policy and former special assistant to Bush.

But in this decade, the Mexican economy has changed, and immigration has shifted again to families and unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America.

Fraga asked, “Would you have ever predicted that you would have so many, relatively speaking, unaccompanied minors coming from countries in Central America?”

Yet immigration policies are based on the 1990s immigrant pattern, Vargas Stidvent said.

Meissner said that most of the people arriving at the border now won’t qualify for asylum but that they try anyway because it’s their only legal pathway into the U.S. Few have relatives with legal permanent residency that would allow them to petition to bring in family members.

“If our system was working the way it is supposed to be working, family petitioning would be possible for not all of them, but for a good number of them,” she said, “and there would be more opportunity to come for work visas.”

‘Two-year election cycle’ won't do it

Vargas Stidvent said the country is governing on a “two-year election cycle, while the problem is much bigger than that, and it takes a long-term approach that doesn’t lend itself well to sound bites.”

“You have to have a bipartisan group that’s willing to take political hits in the short run and reach a long-term solution, and that’s what’s missing,” she said.

“Immigration is going to keep happening, and frankly from an economic standpoint, you want it to keep happening,” she said. “You want to have an influx of younger workers.”

CORRECTION (March 26, 2021, 3:20 p.m.) A previous version of this article misstated the year that President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. It was 2012, not 2013.

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