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The Immigration System Is Better, the Border Is Safer, But More to Do

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With the president and the Senate "Gang of Eight" offering their reform outlines last week and the House holding its first hearing Tuesday, the debate on how to best improve our immigration system has begun in earnest. Since the House last debated immigration reform in 2005, and the Senate in 2007, the context in which this debate will unfold has changed a great deal. Understanding these changes will be critical in helping our leaders find a thoughtful path forward. Below, I offer up some thoughts on how the landscape has changed, and some thoughts on what needs to get done to finish the job of reform:

Success on the Border -- Additional resources, better strategies and enhanced cooperation with Mexico have brought about significant improvement in the border region in recent years. The total number of border patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexican border has gone from 5,300 in 1996 to 18,500 today. Net migration of undocumented immigrants into the U.S. has dropped from 500,000 a year a decade ago to zero today, while crime on the U.S. side of the border has plummeted and incidents of "spillover violence" from Mexico are rare. By some measures, El Paso, the largest city on the border, is the safest big city in America today. While more needs to be done to make the border region even safer and the very real threat of the violence from Mexican organized crime is very real, there has been significant and undeniable progress made in recent years. The Senate immigration reform outline powerfully acknowledged this progress last week, reporting that "border security has improved significantly over the last two Administrations" in its second sentence.

Despite the crackdown on the border, legal tourism and trade with Mexico have exploded. Annual trade flows with Mexico have grown from $81.5 billion in 1993 to $457.3 billion today, making Mexico America's 3rd largest trading partner and 2nd largest export market. The U.S. now trades as much with Mexico as we do with the UK, Japan and Germany combined, and almost as much as we do with China. Mexico produces the 2nd largest number of tourists to the U.S. from any country in the world, and this already big number increased by 30 percent last year. These tourists bring in vital resources to the U.S. side of the border, but also in places like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Florida.

Mexico Is Growing, Modernizing -- The Mexican "baby boom," which encouraged so many Mexicans to migrate into the U.S., has ended, and the Mexican economy is producing far more, better-paying jobs. The birth rate per Mexican woman has fallen from 7.3 in 1960 to almost 2 today. Mexican economic growth, fueled in part by its exploding trade with the U.S., is equally significant: by 2010, Mexican GNI per capita had risen to nearly $9,000, up from $3,250 in 1991. Today, Mexico is the 13th largest economy in the world and is on track to be the 5th largest economy in the world by 2050.

The result of these developments is that the enormous flow of undocumented immigrants from Mexico into the U.S. is almost certainly never going to be replicated.

The Immigration System Is Better -- While Congress has failed to act, the Obama administration has taken a series of important steps to improve the legal immigration system in the U.S. in recent years, including: prioritizing criminal migrants for deportation; making it easier for families to stay together during the legalization process; expanding the nation's worker verification system and working hard to improve it; replacing work place raids with more targeted and effective I-9 audits; and removing the threat of deportation from deserving undocumented youth.

The result of these actions is that our immigration system, built for a different economic era and a different America, is far better today than when the bipartisan effort to reform our system began in 2005.

The Self-Deportation/Attrition Approach Has Suffered Crushing Political Defeats -- The alternative to legal status/path to citizenship -- the self-deportation/attrition strategy -- has become much less a viable option for Republicans. Its legislative cornerstone, Arizona's SB1070, was dealt a near deathblow last year by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court. In 2012, State Senator Russell Pearce, the political architect of SB1070, was recalled from office by a coalition led by mainstream GOP and business leaders while he was sitting Senate Majority Leader. There seems to be far less energy in the states this year for "copy cat" SB1070-style legislation, and in the House Judiciary hearing Tuesday there was little talk, even by the most conservative of legislators, of "self-deportation" or asking those without papers to "go home."

The Latino Vote Has Become Consequential -- With the threatening precedent of California's transformation from the land of Reagan, Nixon and fount of modern of conservative politics to perhaps the most liberal state in America today, the Republicans seem to be finally waking up to the electoral danger of permanently alienating the fast-growing Latino vote. This fear of generational-long minority status appears to have pushed the D.C. GOP establishment this year, after years of active resistance, to a place where a deal on immigration reform is much more possible. However, with so many Republican legislators coming from states or districts with very few immigrants, due to the high concentration of recent immigrants in a small number of states, the power of this argument will also find its natural limits at some point in this debate.

Making the Case for Citizenship -- Thus, as we begin the negotiations for a bipartisan immigration reform bill in earnest, the environment we are operating in is far different from when we began this debate in 2005. Portions of the original legislative construct have been enacted, many with great success. We have shown that we can make the border safer; that we can improve the immigration system itself; that granting even temporary legal status for a class of undocumented immigrants (DACA) will not cause the sky to fall, and has worked well without significant incident so far. This means that the drafters of new legislation have a bit less to do than we began this process in 2005, making the coming negotiations perhaps easier and less contentious than in previous years. One can see quick bipartisan agreement on big chunks of the reform agenda -- DREAM Act, low- and high-skilled visa reform, increases in border infrastructure investment to keep legal trade and tourism growing, and targeted and smart improvements in border enforcement. Additional enforcement measures could include adding more customs agents at the ports of entry and helping the Mexican government stand up a new border patrol designed to better manage all aspects of our 2,000-mile border.

But, what also seems to have changed since 2005 is that the idea of granting "an earned path to citizenship" to those without papers is being challenged in a more direct manner than in any other previous iteration of this debate. In the Senate outline there are far more onerous conditions on citizenship than any previous Senate bill, and the in the House hearing Tuesday it was clear that there was little interest in citizenship from GOP legislators, as member after member made it clear that they viewed it as too much of a "reward" for bad behavior. To me, this means that the advocates for citizenship will be required, for the first time, to make the case for why our answer is better than the alternative being floated, legal status without citizenship. The demographic threat of the growing Latino vote turning against the GOP isn't going to be enough, it appears, to prevail in this debate. New arguments will have to made, and pressed across the country. Citizenship will have to be truly "earned" this year by those, like me, who believe it is the right course.

How to do so? I think the president showed us the way in his powerful Inaugural Address a few weeks ago. It just cannot be, in this country, at this time, that we will knowingly accept the creation of a large class of residents here who are something less than everyone else. This new lesser class of Americans would have all the responsibilities of citizenship -- paying taxes, raising families, etc. -- without the rights that come with it. The extraordinary American journey towards equality the president described in his Address cannot be halted here, at this point. It needs to march on, and bring these hard-working Americans in everything but name only along with it in the coming months, providing them a clear and reasonable path to join their fellow Americans, as full citizens of the United States of America.