With the completion of the US midterm elections earlier this month, observers are rightfully wondering what impact the new era of divided government will have on the direction of US immigration policy. A cynic would likely say that a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a Democratic-Senate, along with a Democratic President, is a recipe for no action whatsoever and sadly, such an outcome is not outside of the realm of possibility, particularly given how thorny an issue immigration has proven to be over the past two decades. However, divided government and an eye on the 2024 presidential election may give each party just enough incentive to make even incremental changes to current immigration law.
Republican policy under former-President Donald Trump veered to an enforcement-heavy and reduction-based approach to overall numbers of immigrants entering the United States. Trump’s insistence on “building the wall” and willingness to issue executive decisions significantly reduced the number of new immigrants arriving to the nation’s shores. When paired with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, these decisions have clearly impacted the US economy, as the US birthrate is currently in decline, which places the nation on dangerous pathway of contraction if it is unable to replenish its currently aging population. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit that openly supports a low-immigration approach to public policy, “[t]he average age of newly arrived legal and illegal immigrants was 31 years in 2019, compared to 26 years in 2000.” While this may represent an undesirable trend upwards, the fact remains that a 31-year-old immigrant has an average of seven more years of potential fruitful impact upon the US economy, culture and fabric compared to the average American, who is 38.1 years old.
What does this all mean for US policy with Republicans commanding the House and at least 48 seats in the Senate (as of this writing, the GA Senate race is headed for a December runoff)? After what is widely considered a shocking lack of support for Republican candidates, the GOP may want to show voters that they can actually be shown to move the country forward with actual policy achievements, instead of returning to the grievance politics of Mr. Trump. As inflation continues to impact every corner of the US economy, moving the needle on immigration policy could usher in much needed labor for the hospitality, manufacturing and restaurant sectors of the economy, all of which are suffering under an extraordinarily limited pool of available workers. Even with rumblings of a recession being unnecessarily trumpeted in national media, the fact remains that unemployment sits at near 3.5%, almost in line with historical lows over the last 25 years. The bottom line – the US has far fewer workers than it needs and both parties are cognizant of the problem.
The question remains whether both parties are willing to be partners in a solution. Republican demands for additional border funding are not unwarranted. President Biden’s border policy has been an objective disaster for two years and federal enforcement can only be described as lax. Democrats should acknowledge the current lack of border policy is not only a political albatross, but also a genuine enforcement problem; they will need to be serious about proposing tangible solutions on how to deal with the current migrant crisis. In that same vein, the current Republican tunnel-visioned approach to only looking at immigration policy through the lens of ‘securing the border’ is a cynical way of avoiding the tougher question on what to do with the 15-20 million individuals currently in the United States without status. Bringing these individuals out of the margins into society would be a huge boost to the nation’s economy, as it would provide many able-bodied workers with the ability to access lawful employment, instead of relying on the current underground economy of cash-based employment.
All of this is to say that the nation requires a serious approach to federal immigration policy. Again while a cynic will dismiss the likelihood of such an occurrence as a pipedream, the first two years of the Biden presidency did reap modest bipartisan deals on infrastructure investment and handgun reforms, which in today’s environment that rewards political bomb throwers, is no small feat. True immigration reform will require some heavy lifting and horse trading from both parties, but the midterms showed that the US populace is hungry for actual progress on solving the nation’s problems and not rewarding those that want to relitigate past disagreements. One can only hope that this newest influx of members of Congress, as well as Congressional leaders, are more interested in actual problem solving compared to retweets and Facebook likes. That may be too much of an optimistic belief but hope certainly beats cynicism.