Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Immigration Reform: Back to the Federal Government

Susan F. Martin

In invalidating most of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, the Supreme Court has put the onus of immigration reform (or lack thereof) back where it belongs—with the U.S. Congress. The majority on the Court correctly held that immigration policy rests firmly with the federal government. With the Arizona decision out of the way, the difficult work remains in crafting federal immigration policy that meets the demands of the twenty first century.

Today’s immigration laws are far from meeting that standard. Before the economic crisis, the fastest growth in net immigration was unauthorized entries. When the economy recovers, the demand for foreign workers will likely resume. Many of the jobs will be year-round and most will be at the low end of the wage spectrum. There are only 10,000 employment visas available annually for such workers. At the same time, some 11 million unauthorized migrants remain in the country and only a fraction includes the ‘Dreamers’ who will receive temporary permission to remain in the country.

Getting meaningful reform is no easy feat. My recent book, A Nation of Immigrants, shows that comprehensive immigration reform has been the exception, not the norm in U.S. history. Partisan Congressional gridlock is one problem. The reticence to pass immigration reform goes deeper, however. In large part, it stems from our ambivalence about immigration. We see our own immigrant forebears with rose colored glasses, proud of their achievements in shaping the country. We are concerned, however, about today’s immigrants, not sure that they will adapt as well as we believe our ancestors did. One impulse tells us we are a nation of immigrants, the other that immigrants are threats. Often, legislative stalemate is the result.

Concern about current immigrants is not new. Benjamin Franklin railed against the German immigrants in colonial Pennsylvania. At the turn of the 20th century, a leading proponent of immigration restrictions called Jewish, Italian and other immigrants “beaten men from beaten races, representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence.” He would no doubt have been amazed to see two children of Italian immigrants on the Supreme Court (Justices Scalia and Alito) along with three Jews, a Hispanic and an African American.

Perhaps immigration reform would have more traction if we knew more about our own immigration history. Most of our ancestors were pilloried as presenting just the type of burdens that legislators in Arizona claim about illegal border crossers. But each previous immigrant group has proven the skeptics wrong. It is just as likely that today’s immigrants—even those who came here illegally—will defy the worst fears of those who are convinced immigrants are a threat.

This is not to say that immigration is without cost. Illegal immigration, in particular, is dangerous to the migrants and creates an underclass which is unable to call upon the protection of our legal system. It allows unscrupulous employers to undercut wages of competitors by using lower cost illegal labor. But, there are winners as well. Too many of us decry illegal immigration while enjoying the benefits of lower prices for our goods and services.

Congress should pay heed to the message of the Supreme Court majority that the federal government alone is responsible for immigration policy. Our message to Congress should be loud and clear: we demand a balanced approach that respects our immigration history, restores a functioning legal immigration system, curbs illegal migration in humane but effective ways, and ceases to demonize migrants. Hopefully, in the next Congress, we will have immigration policy that is more faithful to our history as a nation of immigrants.

About The Author

Susan F. Martin

Susan F. Martin is the author of A Nation of Immigrants (2010). She holds the Donald G. Herzberg Chair in International Migration and serves as the Director of the Institute for th...

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