Hot Topic: 'The Time Has Come to Pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform'

Hot Topic: 'The Time Has Come to Pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform'

Obama to Congress: 'Let's get this done'

family and flag

A family at a Washington, D.C. rally for immigrants' rights in 2010.

In his State of the Union address to Congress, President Barack Obama called for comprehensive immigration reform. "Let's get this done," the president said. "Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away." The president acknowledged that efforts are underway to craft such bills in both houses of Congress. Eight U.S. senators – four Republicans, four Democrats – recently offered a plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. Following the 2012 election, in which Hispanic voters overwhelmingly favored President Obama and the Democrats, Republican leaders in Congress have signaled their willingness to work with the Administration on reform. Groups usually opposed to each other, such as the Service Employees International Union and the United States Chamber of Commerce, have joined together to support reform. Even conservative religious organizations like Focus on the Family have embraced immigration reform legislation at least in principle. 

Rutgers Today asked Anastasia Mann, an assistant research professor who is on leave from her position as director of the Program on Immigration and Democracy at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, to help sort out the issues surrounding the continuing debate. 

Rutgers Today: Do our immigration laws need reforming? 

Anastasia Mann: Yes. There is wide agreement across the political spectrum about the need for reform. 

Proof that the system is broken is not hard to find: It’s evident in the 11 million people who live in the US without documentation; the fruit that rots on trees when Americans don’t want to pick it, the children that grow up separated from their parents and the international students who graduate from American universities and then take their talents to more welcoming countries. The list goes on. 

Rutgers Today: Why is it so difficult to reform our immigration laws? 

Stacy Mann

Anastasia Mann, assistant research professor and director of program on immigration and democracy at Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics 

Mann: Reform is contentious because it raises a basic question: What kind of country is the United States? Americans have two very different answers. Some see the United States as a place where strivers from all over the world add to our success. Others see America as championing a single tradition, usually strongly tied to its European roots. As they see it, outsiders, by their very presence, threaten American culture. 


This second view gains support when our economy is weaker. Economists at the Brookings Institute and elsewhere have found that immigrants actually raise wages for natives between .1 and .6 percent. However, the perception that immigrants depress wages, combined with pure partisan rancor, best explains why President Obama did not push for immigration reform during his first term. 

Rutgers Today: President Obama and eight senators have proposed very similar reforms to our immigration laws. What are the similarities and the differences, and what do you think a final reform will look like? 

Mann: There is a significant overlap between what the eight senators have proposed and what we’ve heard from the White House. Both versions call for a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S., enhanced border security, an expedited path to legalization for young people brought to the United States without authorization as minors as well as a fast track to citizenship for international students who graduate from American universities with advanced degrees in STEM subjects,  a fraud-proof system to verify workers’ legal status and a crackdown on employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. The two versions differ over strengthening border enforcement. The Republicans say they won’t consider legalization until enforcement is ramped up; the Administration says it has been ramped up and point to the 1.5 million people they’ve deported since taking office, more than any previous administration. 

Rutgers Today: Both the president’s proposal and the Senate bill ask people now living in the country illegally to register with the government, pay a fine, pay any back taxes and (in the president’s proposal) learn English before getting in line behind legal immigrants for green cards and citizenship. How high a hurdle is that for most undocumented people? 

Mann: Given the current backlog of people applying for green cards and citizenship, some experts say the wait could be 100 years. That’s quite a hurdle. On the other hand, nearly 350,000 of the 1.8 million youth eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – which prevents people brought here as children from being deported – have applied for that program since last spring, so there’s reason to think their parents will get in line as soon as possible. At Citizenship Rutgers, the Eagleton program on immigration, we have seen that the $680 naturalization fee is a significant hurdle for many families.  Some green card holders have long qualified to apply for citizenship but setting aside enough money for the fees has taken them years. As for learning English, many undocumented immigrants have been here long enough to read and understand English as well as I do. Those who don’t are mostly eager to learn.

Media Contact: Ken Branson
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