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Is Another Complacency Trap Awaiting GOP on Immigration?

Reason magazine’s website has published an illustration on the convoluted and often hopeless process of immigrating to the U.S. and applying for citizenship, originally published in its October 2008 issue on immigration. If you have a non-immediate relative who is an American citizen it can still take up to 28 years to gain citizenship, though as the diagram notes, there are many cases that never even get that far. And despite the value that “unskilled” immigrants can offer certain sectors of the American economy, Reason’s map points out:

There is virtually no process for unskilled immigrants without relations in the U.S. to apply for permanent legal residence. Only 10,000 green cards are allotted every year, and the wait time approaches infinity. (Those who receive H-2A or H-2B temporary visas for seasonal work cannot transition to a green card.)

This points to one source of frustration voters have when it comes to major reform legislation: the political class was unable to fix obvious problems before they got out of hand. Now voters are being told their elected representatives are going to be capable of fully solving a problem they couldn’t contain. Several examples of this cropped up during the debate over Obamacare. Of course people should have been able to buy health insurance across state lines, and of course catastrophic-care plans more suited to the needs of many healthy young people should have been more widely available. Both would have helped curb the cost of health care–as would have tort reform.

Instead, the problem festered and costs spun out of control until voters were told the industry was in crisis and the only solution was a mammoth, expensive, bureaucracy-heavy overhaul of dubious constitutionality. “Fixing the immigration system” sounds like quite an undertaking, and it is–but it remains a necessary one, no less so because there were steps that could and should have been taken along the way.

What’s interesting here, as the New York Times’s Richard Stevenson points out today, is that Congress’s lack of urgency on the issue actually outlasted what was considered the crisis point:

By some key measures, the problems underlying illegal immigration — the economic and demographic pressures that have drawn Mexicans north for decades in search of jobs and a better life, and the challenges for the United States of securing its borders — have diminished over the past six years.

The Mexican economy, while still riddled with inefficiency and inequality, is nonetheless humming along, providing many more job opportunities for Mexican workers. And in Mexico, the source of about 6 in 10 illegal immigrants in the United States, the birthrate has plummeted over the last few decades, shrinking the pool of potential emigrants.

“We are at a moment when the underlying drivers of what has been persistent, growing illegal immigration for 40 years have shifted,” said Doris Meissner, a commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton and now a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a research group. “There are some fundamental new realities.”

Mexican birthrates have fallen sharply and something of a Mexican middle class has emerged. Those two factors are likely to continue if and when the American economy turns around. What has given the pro-immigration reform crowd the advantage is that one “crisis” has remained: the political crisis of the Republican Party, which now has an electoral incentive to support immigration reform–something they should have done long ago–regardless of the rates of low-skilled and illegal immigration.

As I’ve written before, the GOP’s trouble attracting Hispanic voters is much more complex than just the immigration issue, but fixing the system is a good start. Immigration reform is also the right policy, regardless of the votes that come with it. And a look at that Reason chart tells you just how long ago something should have been done. But wavering conservatives shouldn’t fool themselves into learning the wrong lesson from Stevenson’s piece and thinking that since this particular wave of immigration has subsided, the system can handle another round of procrastination.



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