The election of Barack Obama brought hopes that comprehensive immigration reform would soon be enacted. That expectation failed to materialize. As a new election approaches, the time is ripe to review the factors that have led to paralysis in immigration reform, examine changes in the scale and composition of immigration; and discuss legislative initiatives at the state and local levels.
The failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform cannot be seen as a historical necessity. Both Republicans and Democrats have in the past backed efforts at regularizing immigrant flows to fill labor demands in sectors like agriculture and construction; reduce burdensome bureaucratic processes and costly outlays in detentions and deportations; and satisfy humanitarian concerns. Why then the present situation? Possible answers relate to pragmatic political calculations but also to changes in the workings of Congress. An examination of alternatives that may lead to the implementation of new legislative initiatives is a main goal of this conference.
The standstill in immigration reform has been oddly timed considering changes in the character and magnitude of immigration. Recent studies suggest that immigration to the U.S. has slowed down significantly, reaching perhaps negative rates as a result of draconian government policies and economic downturn. Although undocumented immigration has abated, the fury against irregular immigrants has not. A record number of deportations under the Obama Administration have led to the expansion of a carceral industry aimed at housing a growing number of undocumented immigrants while they await repatriation, often for extended periods of time.
In the absence of action at the federal level, many states have taken over with a resulting patchwork of legislative items and programs, many of which are often contradictory and almost all of which have been subject to constitutional challenges. The implementation of restrictive laws in Arizona and Alabama has been followed by labor shortages in various sectors of the economy. Some immigrant families have withdrawn children from public schools for fear of being detected and deported. The failure to implement the DREAM Act, first introduced by Congress in 2001, continues to leave more than three million immigrant children with few alternatives in education and employment.
Yet, within that dismaying panorama other developments suggest that change is occurring without notice. More than 100,000 temporal worker visas were issued in 2010-11, mostly to agricultural workers placed in almost complete dependence to particular employers. Directives on the part of the executive branch seeking to limit the discretion of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) have met with forceful opposition on the part of personnel within the Department of Homeland Security. Most recently, an order to curtail deportation-related actions that would result in the separation of American citizens from parents or spouses gives evidence to a growing tension between state and federal outlooks on immigration policy.
In other words, although the general panorama surrounding immigration is one of stagnation, other developments suggest that change is occurring at an accelerated pace. A main purpose of this conference is to take stock of those changes and consider their implications for research and policy.