Immigration Likely To Also Be A Leading Issue In US Elections – Analysis


By Uma Purushothaman*

As the world is debating the migration crisis in Europe, immigration is likely to be one of the leading issues in the forthcoming US elections too, if the first Republican presidential debate held in August is any pointer.

There are two aspects to the debate over immigration in the US. The first is how to stop illegal immigrants from entering the US. The second is about what to do about the 11.4 million (according to Department of Homeland Security figures from 2013) illegal immigrants currently living in the US. While many Americans oppose immigration because of fear of losing jobs, there is also the fact that the healthcare industry, restaurants and hotels industries are dependent on low skilled workers who are willing to work for lower wages for longer hours. President Obama has tried in both his terms to have immigration reform laws passed but has failed because of partisanship on the Hill.

Democrats and the Republicans have vastly different positions on the issue. The Democrats broadly favour policies which would stop illegal immigration while allowing some categories of illegal immigrants some paths to citizenship. Republicans, on the other hand, support stronger border security and oppose amnesty for illegal aliens. Of course, within both parties, candidates might have liberal or conservative views depending on which wing of the party they belong to.

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has adopted an aggressive pro-immigration stance. As Senator, in 2006 she had voted in support of the Secure Fence Act to build a fence along the US-Mexico border. But now she supports President Obama’s attempt to reform immigration and has even indicated support for giving drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants. She supports a path to citizenship and has promised to fight for immigration reform, to defend and expand on executive actions if Republicans continue to block a permanent legislative solution and also to revisit the Obama Administration’s controversial family detention practices.

While Bernie Sanders advocates immigration reform, he is against temporary guest worker programmes, which are part of comprehensive immigration reform. His concern about the guest worker programme is that at a time when unemployment is high in the US and Americans are working longer for lower wages, it does not make sense to have a programme which will allow corporations to import workers from abroad at lower wages as this will only depress wages in the country.

Martin O’Malley also supports immigration reform. As Governor of Maryland, he brought a law which created a temporary system for undocumented residents of the state to obtain licenses. Another law he passed has been described as Maryland’s version of the DREAM Act as it allows children of illegal immigrants to get in-state tuitions. During the child migrant refugee crisis in 2014, O’Malley spoke out against their deportation and asked lawyers to represent these children. This led to a rift between him and the White House. He favours a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and is also against the detention of undocumented migrants. He has promised to push for immigration reform within the first hundred days of his Presidency.

Lincoln Chafee supports comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship. He voted against the Secure Fence Act in 2006. He was one of the fourteen governors who in 2013 wrote to John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi requesting them to create a bipartisan immigration solution.

Donald Trump, the surprise Republican frontrunner, has already grabbed eyeballs with his statements against illegal immigrants. During his announcement speech, Trump said that “immigrants from Mexico are “people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”. He wants to build a border wall, “detain undocumented immigrants and only release them to their country of origin, defund sanctuary cities, enhance penalties for overstaying a visa, end birthright citizenship, require companies to hire American workers first and apply stricter standards for refugee status”. He has spoken out against paths to citizenship, even saying that children born in the US to undocumented mothers (the so-called “anchor babies”) should not be automatically given citizenship. He has mocked Jeb Bush about his wife, who is of Mexican origin.

Jeb Bush, a fluent Spanish speaker, who represents the mainstream Republican Party, has spoken out against ending birthright citizenship saying it is a constitutionally protected right. However, he says that if the provision is abused and if there is “birth tourism”, there should be greater enforcement. Bush wants more forward-operating bases closer to the border, advanced counter-surveillance technology and improved border infrastructure with road construction and maintenance to deal with border security issues. For interior enforcement, Bush wants electronic verification of employment eligibility, adequate tracking and deportation of immigrants overstaying their visas, and withholding federal funding for sanctuary cities. He has also supported a path to legal status for those who are already illegally in the country.

Ben Carson wants to revoke birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants. He controversially has even supported using drones to secure the border. He believes that deporting immigrants and building a wall would be unrealistic and expensive. For immigrants who are already in the US, he wants a guest worker programme. But they would have to pay back tax penalty, taxes moving forward and go through the process of getting citizenship like everyone else.

Marco Rubio, who is himself of Hispanic origin, has supported a path to citizenship. He wants to secure the border as well as to reform immigration, which he incidentally supported in the Senate. He feels that the US needs to reform immigration to attract the best talent from abroad.

Scott Walker is also against birthright citizenship and considers border security to be a matter of national security. He has spoken out against amnesty for immigrants.

Thus, politicians from both sides are appealing to their constituencies through their positions on Immigration. Immigration is an emotive and divisive issue among voters. 39% of Americans want lower immigration, while only 7% want higher immigration, according to a recent Gallup survey. While the Democrats are courting the Hispanic votes, the largest ethnic minority in the country constituting 17 percent of the population, most of the Republicans are trying to court the traditional Republican voters who do not welcome immigrants as they feel that they take away their jobs and decrease wages. However, some like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are trying to appeal to a wider constituency, including Hispanics.

Hispanics incidentally have traditionally voted for Democrats and played a huge role in President Obama’s two victories. But even now, polls show Hillary Clinton as being more popular among Hispanics than both Bush and Rubio. So, irrespective of where they stand on immigration, it seems that winning Hispanic votes is a lost cause for the Republicans. In any case, given how divisive the issue has become, it is unlikely that even during the next Presidency, immigration reform will be passed.

*Uma Purushothaman is a Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi

Courtesy: ORF US Monitor

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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