Amnesty or an Illusion?

Reeves & Associates

The reelection of Barack Obama has generated a great deal of optimism for comprehensive immigration reform.  President Obama campaigned on a promise of reforming America’s immigration system, and he was elected with overwhelming support from immigrant communities, including 71% of Latino voters. 

In the week since the election, many Republican strategists and party leaders have said that they now realize that they cannot win a national election on a hardline immigration platform.  Republicans want to work with Democrats in order to show Latino voters and other immigrant communities that they are still a viable national party, and President Obama, many presume, is motivated to make good on his campaign promises and satisfy the base that elected him. 

Nonetheless, high hopes must be tempered with realism.  First, there is no talk right now of a general amnesty.  Even when party leaders talk about “comprehensive immigration reform,” they are careful not to specify whether the reform means expansion of benefits, or whether it means more severe controls at the borders.  This last Sunday, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Republican senator Lindsey Graham said that he realizes that prior Republican immigration policy has “built a wall” between the Republican Party and Hispanic voters, and said that he intends to “tear this wall down and pass an immigration reform bill.” 

Even so, Senator Graham stated that the first priority before amnesty would be securing U.S. borders and increasing penalties and enforcement against American businesses that hire illegal workers. This has been the Republican’s proposal for the last 10 years. The borders are already as secure as some penal institutions.  Senator Graham admits that “it could take over a decade to get a green card.”  There is virtually no indication that wide-ranging amnesty is being considered, and it is unlikely that an amnesty bill would find bipartisan support in a House of Representatives that still has Republican majority control.  

A general amnesty is also unrealistic in light of high unemployment rates, currently at 7.9%.  Although party leaders may want to push forward immigration reform to satisfy Latino voters and other immigrant communities, neither party can avoid addressing the unemployment of U.S. citizens and green card holders.  A general amnesty would give work authorization to millions who currently have no immigration status in the United States, making the job market even more competitive for citizens and permanent residents who are currently looking for work.  As a result, an amnesty would be highly improbable, at least as long as unemployment rates remain high.  Any “immigration reform” is likely to be modest, and likely will not result in a “snap of the fingers” status for persons who are currently undocumented.    

Second, any change in immigration law may take several years before it becomes effective.  Even if the two parties can come to some agreement about immigration reform, it will likely take 3 to 5 years to become law.  Any change in law needs to pass both houses of Congress, after surviving floor debates, drafts and re-drafts, addition and removal of earmarks and other amendments, budgetary considerations and compromises, committee meetings, and votes.  If the president does not agree with some part of the bill or the bill in its entirety (either because he believes the bill does not satisfy his goals or contains too many obfuscating earmarks and amendments), he can veto the bill in its entirety, and the process begins again from scratch. 

Changes in law typically do not take effect immediately, but rather take effect months later, and can be delayed by implementing regulations and policy alterations.  In short, even in the best-case scenario, it would likely be years before we saw the effects of any change in law.  Any person who is currently eligible for immigration relief should strongly consider pursuing relief now.  Waiting for some speculative change in law on the basis of nothing more than election-year rhetoric is wishful thinking and will likely result only in dreams deferred.  There may be ways to obtain work authorization now based on eligibility under the existing laws, but waiting for some unknown change at some distant point in the future may only lead to disappointment and more financial hard