“Without immigration it becomes increasingly impossible to sustain entitlements, much less a functioning health care system, or a local tax base in rural and suburban cities and communities across the country,” says Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum, a centrist immigration advocacy group.
“The bill would end up significantly increasing the legal immigration level and that should have a significant benefit demographically,” Anderson told me.
“Legal immigration is really the orphan child in all of this,” says David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.
Earlier comprehensive efforts fizzled
Both in 2006 and 2013, the Senate passed omnibus bills with bipartisan majorities (though with support from notably fewer Republicans the second time.) But each time the legislation died when the Republicans who controlled the House majority at the time refused to consider the bills.
That legacy of failure largely explains why there’s little enthusiasm among Democrats today for the extended bipartisan negotiations that characterized the 2006 and 2013 efforts.
Immigrant advocacy groups aren’t resisting efforts by Biden and Senate Democrats to seek possible areas of consensus with Republicans, but almost universally they consider them doomed to fail. At most, some advocates think it’s possible that 10 Senate Republicans — the number needed to break a GOP filibuster if every Democrat holds together — might support a pathway to citizenship for the young undocumented people brought to the US by their parents or conceivably even longtime agriculture workers. But very few believe that 10 GOP senators will support legal status for any significant remainder of the undocumented, whatever concessions Democrats offer on other issues, like tougher border security.
That’s a key difference from the earlier negotiations, when Democrats operated on the assumption that if they provided sufficient reassurances on security, enough Republicans would embrace legalization.
“We are working hard to get 10 Senate Republicans just to see if it’s viable,” said one leading immigration overhaul advocate, who asked to remain anonymous while discussing internal strategy. But, the advocate added, given “that Trump continues to drive the calculus about their next election,” there’s little expectation that 10 Republicans votes are ultimately available.
As a result, the principal energy among immigrant advocates is toward convincing congressional Democrats to legalize as many of the undocumented as they can through the reconciliation process, which requires only a majority vote in the Senate. Their focus isn’t the reconciliation bill now moving on Biden’s Covid relief package, but rather another reconciliation bill that they expect him to unveil in a few weeks, encompassing his broader economic agenda.
“The feeling is it ends up in reconciliation. That’s what we are driving toward,” the advocate added.
Legalizing the undocumented, who in many cases are longtime residents or have US citizen children, has always been the top priority and moral center of the immigration debate for Democrats. But because the undocumented, by definition, are already living in the US and the vast majority are already participating in the workforce, they would not address the population squeeze that’s tightening on American society.
Population growth slows, senior growth explodes
“Sooner or later people are going to look at this chart and say, ‘We are going to need more people in our labor force. We are going to need more customers,’ ” Frey told me.
Those attitudes expose the great irony of the immigration debate. The nation’s growing diversity is centered among the young: Frey says the 2020 census will find that for the first time, a majority of the nation’s under-18 population is non-White. But because the US largely cut off immigration from 1924 to 1965, most older Americans are White.
The older Whites in Trump’s coalition enthusiastically backing Republican politicians who promise to cut immigration are voting to endanger the entitlements on which they rely by slashing the number of working-age taxpayers available to support them.
Proposed tweaks to the system
“We need to be talking about the future of immigration with the bottom-line self-interest of Americans who want to retire in mind,” Noorani says.
Neither the White House nor congressional Democrats have yet produced an estimate of how many more people their plans would admit, and each seems reluctant to do so. But in the detailed analysis shared with CNN, Anderson calculates that if fully implemented, the Democratic proposal would essentially meet Noorani’s target.
Anderson projects that the bill would increase the flow of legal immigrants to about 1.5 million annually. At points over the coming decade, he says, the increase would be even greater, because the bill also would clear out the huge backlogs that now have nearly 3.8 million eligible immigrants waiting for family reunification visas. Under the legislation, he calculates, America’s working-age population would grow by nearly one-fourth more each year than it would under current policy.
The bill does not fundamentally restructure the legal immigration system, which now admits migrants primarily through two principal streams: family reunification and employment. But it adjusts the rules in seemingly technical ways across multiple entry points in that system, systematically widening the spigot. For instance, the legislation seems to make only a minor change in the employment-based system, increasing the number of visas from the current 140,000 annually to 170,000.
But in fact, Anderson notes, the bill could more than double the number of employment-based entrants (a top priority for business groups). The reason: While the spouses and minor children of employment-based immigrants are now counted against that 140,000 annual cap, they would be exempted from the new (higher) limit. That would allow all of the slots to be used for employment-based applicants — and would have a further multiplying effect by creating eligibility for the immediate family members of that larger group.
Other key changes include allowing all foreign students who earn Ph.D.s in the US to receive green cards, a pilot program allowing cities or counties facing population loss to sponsor immigrants who will relocate there and slightly increasing the number of visas available to countries whose small immigration flows make them eligible for the “diversity lottery” (while again multiplying the impact by exempting spouses and minor children from the count).
Another big change: providing visas to any eligible immigrant who has been waiting 10 years or more because of annual caps and country limits that restrict entry for certain family members, such as adult children or siblings, of US citizens. (Typically, Democrats have supported clearing such backlogs before legalizing the undocumented to preempt the criticism that legalization penalizes immigrants who have been legally waiting in line.)
While employment- and family-based immigration have been pitted against each other in the previous legislative debates, Noorani says that’s a false choice: Whichever door migrants come through, he notes, the vast majority will eventually join the workforce, which is exactly what the US needs in the coming years.
“You can make a case that anybody who is working age is a net contributor to the system,” he says.
But can it get through Congress?
“It is hard to have this discussion now that we’ve had a terrible economic tragedy, a terrible public health tragedy,” says Holtz-Eakin. “But when you do immigration reform it should be what do you want to the rules of the road to be for the next 20 years. You don’t want to do this every year.”
Yet even amid the pandemic, awareness of the population squeeze — and its implications for the economy — may be growing. Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer of the US Chamber of Commerce, says, “We are beginning to hear it in the states and almost on a local basis.”
While concerns about population loss have been greatest in rural areas, increasingly “you hear people talking about it in Rust Belt cities,” he notes. “If we’re going to do immigration reform it’s critical that we think through what provisions work best for supporting the economy, and increasing legal immigration is one of the best things you can do to support future economic growth.”
The most optimistic scenario is that even if legal immigration loses out in this year’s legislative maneuvering, success in legalizing some portion of the undocumented population through the special reconciliation process will generate momentum for more action later.
Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council, an immigrant advocacy group, notes that every attempt to deal with any aspect of the immigration system has ultimately foundered on the emotional issue of addressing the undocumented. If that’s removed from the equation, he says, “there is the prospect … it opens the door to potentially a bipartisan consensus on moving something on legal immigration down the road, with a new coalition. … We can’t quite get to that point, because we are stuck on this threshold question of legalization for the undocumented.”
The immigration debate has rarely rewarded optimism in the past few decades. But there’s mounting demographic evidence the US will pay a heavy economic price in the next few decades if it can’t break the immigration stalemate to alleviate its population squeeze.
“Without legal immigration, the United States is not going to see sustained population growth and we’ll see declining economic growth as a consequence,” says Cato’s Bier. “It’s just that simple.”