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Vast Majority of Public Supports a Legalization Program for Unauthorized Immigrants

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I was shocked to discover the other day just how far the pendulum has swung in terms of American public opinion on immigration. The new United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll revealed that 62 percent of Republicans -- the group most likely to oppose "illegal" immigration and the presence of unauthorized migrants in the U.S. -- now support allowing "those who have been here for many years and have broken no other laws to stay here legally." Among Democrats, support is at 72 percent, which means a great majority of Americans from both major political parties are now strongly in favor of a legalization program to solve the problem of irregular migration. Among all respondents, support was 67 percent.

Of the 62 percent of Republican supporters, 43 percent want to deport those who have only been in the United States for a short period of time, and 19 percent favor allowing all unauthorized migrants to stay as long as they have broken no other laws and commit to learning English and U.S. history. With such vast bipartisan support, is now the time to finally implement a legalization program for the unauthorized population?

Perhaps the American public has finally realized that deporting 11 million people -- 8 million of whom are exploitable workers with no labor rights -- is simply not rational or feasible. Such action would shrink the economy and tear families apart. And it would unfairly blame and punish the migrants themselves, when others share the blame. Just before 9/11, deportations were less than half as common as they are today (and six years before that, there were almost 90 percent fewer deportations), and employer sanctions were a rarity. For decades, employers lured unauthorized migrants to the U.S. with job offers, while Congress and the president looked the other way when it came to enforcement. Government policies also played a role. Enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 was perhaps the single biggest factor causing the increase in irregular migration.

Thus, the government, employers and migrants should equally share the blame, and any solution must be rational and humane -- but also deter future flows of unauthorized migrants. The necessary solution is clear, and really quite simple, and the language used in the UT/National Journal poll suggests some of what's required.

First, the government can motivate unauthorized residents to come forward by offering legal status to those who can prove they have not committed crimes other than residing in the U.S. without proper authorization, and then require them to pay any unpaid taxes, learn English and take courses in U.S. history. The other key step in the process will be determining how long the unauthorized migrant has resided in the country, and their level of attachment to the labor market. I would argue if you've been working continuously in the country for three years, you've cemented your place in the U.S. labor market and should be allowed to stay. If others disagree that three years is long enough, a compromise should be negotiated.

The UT/National Journal poll does not specify exactly how many years they meant when asking if respondents would support legalization for those who have been here for "many years." A new report estimates the length of time the unauthorized population has resided in the country, which gives us an idea of how many people could qualify for this legalization program based on the number of years ultimately required. Only 15 percent of unauthorized migrants have been here less than five years, while 63 percent have been in the country for 10 years or more, and 35 percent have been here for at least 15 years. This tells us that the vast majority of unauthorized migrants are not recent arrivals, and are therefore likely to be well integrated into the labor market because they are unable to access almost any part of the social safety net (i.e., they have no other choice but to work).

Finally, once this program is in place, deport and strictly enforce immigration laws against those that do not qualify for legalization, and begin implementing a functional employment verification system to deter future flows of unauthorized migrants (this would need to include a PIN-based system to overcome some of the privacy concerns inherent in E-Verify, as discussed here).

Unfortunately, political decisions and public policy often fail to respond quickly to public opinion and the public's desires. But this new polling data revealing broad support for a legalization program -- when considered in conjunction with data showing the stock of unauthorized residents in the country has reduced by about one million since the recession, and a sharp decline in the annual flow of unauthorized migrants - suggests there hasn't been a better time to fix this crucial part of our broken immigration system since 1986.

This article has been cross-posted at the Economic Policy Institute's blog, Working Economics.

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