Future of Immigration Reform After Midterm Elections

The balance of power in Congress has shifted. Republicans now have control over the House of Representatives, surpassing the 218-seat requirement to reach majority. The Democratic Party retains control of the Senate but only by a narrow margin.

So what does a Republican House mean for proponents of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR)? For starters, the chances of a CIR bill being passed this or next year are slim.  

With a divided Congress, there will be very limited political capital to move the current CIR proposal forward. Any CIR bill that will stand a chance in the new political landscape will look very different from what CIR supporters originally presented the then-Democratic Congress.

For instance, a legalization program will be likely out of the question. Enforcement measures and border security will continue to be given priority, and the debate over birthright citizenship may continue.

CIR advocates have already pushed for incremental or piecemeal legislation, but one could not as of yet characterize their efforts as a success.

First, the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act – a law intended to grant lawful status to undocumented students– failed to pass Republican filibuster last September. Another bill, the AgJOBS (Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security) Act, which aims to regularize the status of undocumented farm workers, is still in the first step of the legislative mill. Its future in the new Congress is uncertain.

Some groups are optimistic that with a more business-oriented party in control, skilled immigration reform is more likely to move forward in Congress. An article in The Economist noted that a research group called the Hamilton Project found that the number of foreign workers in the U.S. has been declining, and added that this might be a reflection of the country’s diminished appeal to the world’s most sought-after workers.

With few job prospects and restrictive immigration policies, some educated and skilled workers have chosen to go back to their native countries. Still more are deterred from even entering the country to find what opportunities may be open to them. A plan to encourage these skilled individuals to come to the U.S. may, as it has done in the past, encourage business and spur technological growth.  

If skilled immigration is advanced separately, the odds of reform advocates scoring a win in Congress will increase. The challenge in doing so, however, lies in the fact that skilled immigration reform is part of CIR: the latter will likely lose steam if the former is tackled independently of the issue of illegal immigration, which has proven to be a sticking point in any talk of immigration reform. On the other hand, splitting skilled immigration from CIR just might make it more palatable and result in more cooperation and compromise in Congress.

President Barack Obama vowed immigration reform during his 2008 campaign. He has so far failed to deliver on this promise as his immigration agenda took a back seat to health care reforms and the economic stimulus plan.

The economic recession, high unemployment rates and a record-setting budget deficit have contributed to low approval ratings for Obama and the Democratic Congress, not to mention the resurgence of the GOP and even the rise of the insurgent Tea Party.

The economic downturn, political climate, and the constant threat of terrorism, have also spawned a new wave of nativism in the country. This nativist and anti-immigrant sentiment was illustrated during the controversial debate behind Arizona’s SB1070, the unprecedented law that allows the state’s government to identify, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants. The constitutionality of this law is currently pending review by a federal appellate court.