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How the Fate of Immigration Reform Is Intertwined with the Political Deadlock in Washington

July 01, 2014
The 113th Congress, which runs from January 3, 2013 to January 3, 2015, has been characterized by political deadlock between a Republican controlled House and a Democrat controlled Senate. The lack of bipartisan support in passing major legislations has resulted in the lowest approval numbers of Congress in recent decades. A major indication of the divided Congress was the failure of the Republican majority House to take up the immigration reform bill passed in the Senate a year earlier on June 23, 2013.

Author: Yi Heng (Alan) Wang, C’16

Disclaimer: The views contained in this blog post solely reflect those of a 20 year old political novice who hails to Washington, DC from an immigrant family in Vancouver, Canada. They do not reflect the views of the Government of Canada or any other organizations.

Before this summer, I would never have said that I was interested in Politics. That all changed when I was thrown right into the center of money and politics at the 2014 US Fiscal Summit held by the Peterson Institute – on the third day after I began my internship at the Embassy of Canada. As an intern in the Economics and Trade Policy section, my chief responsibility is to report on policy debates at various Think Tanks and Congressional Hearings about macroeconomic and financial issues that are relevant to Canada. One of the many perks of working in an embassy is your identity as a “foreign observer” and the ability to navigate through the heated partisan debates from a bystander’s perspective. With my self-proclaimed objectively Canadian lens, I will reflect on the contentious debate around immigration reform.

The 113th Congress, which runs from January 3, 2013 to January 3, 2015, has been characterized by political deadlock between a Republican controlled House and a Democrat controlled Senate. The lack of bipartisan support in passing major legislations has resulted in the lowest approval numbers of Congress in recent decades. A major indication of the divided Congress was the failure of the Republican majority House to take up the immigration reform bill passed in the Senate a year earlier on June 23, 2013. While pro-immigration advocates argued that millions of illegal immigrants contribute significantly to the American economy, others pointed out that many low-skilled Americans are losing their jobs to immigrants and the stagnant wage levels in sectors with large concentration of immigrants.

In order to address the concern of wage stagnation in sectors with high number of immigrants, it might be useful to realize that wage stagnation after the 1980s coincided with a sharp decline in unionization rates in America. Protective measures alone that calls for a deportation of all illegal immigrants in order to decrease the supply of labor will not alleviate the competition that low-skilled American workers face. Globalization has also triggered a phenomenon called the ‘race to the bottom’ in which corporations driven solely by profit have relocated to different countries in search of the lowest possible wage levels. Instead, the solution to the problem of wage stagnation should be focused on increasing the collective bargaining powers of workers. At a time when cheap labor abroad poses much more of a threat to American low-skilled jobs than domestic undocumented immigrants, it is essential that the government implements policies to ensure the shared prosperity of both workers and employers.

At a recent conference held by the Economic Policy Institute that I attended, Congressman Ellison (D-MN) called for an agenda of shared prosperity. Over the past few years, net migration from south of the border has nearly flattened out, mainly because the economic situation in Mexico has been improving rapidly. Recently however, the influx of unaccompanied children seeking refuge from Central American countries has created significant demands for temporary shelters near the border. Deporting all of the illegal immigrants currently in America without consideration of their backgrounds and their contribution to the American economy is both economically infeasible and morally unjust. Instead, policymakers should ensure that shared prosperity is achieved by effectively integrating certain immigrants, provided they pass specific requirements, into American society legally. On this matter, I am firmly in support of the President’s Common Sense Proposal, which includes an element of a pathway to citizenship.

Given the political stalemate in Congress, it is highly unlikely that immigration reform will be taken up in the near future. The recent loss of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to Tea Party challenger David Brat in the Republican Primary in Virginia can be partially attributed to Cantor’s moderate stance towards immigration reform. Brat was able to effectively attack Cantor on the issue of immigration reform, among others, in a Tea Party victory that sent the signal to the GOP that immigration reform is a politically risky issue. On the other hand, pro-immigration activists are now increasing pressure on the President to take executive action to address the status of the 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the country. However, the prospects of Obama issuing executive orders to address the deteriorating situation without the support of Congress is infeasible given that his lack of political capital.

As a naturalized Canadian citizen after immigrating to the Canada years ago, I have experienced first-hand the favorable immigration policies and the economic value that high-skilled immigration brings to Canada. I would argue that my personal story as an immigrant child born outside of Canada is increasingly becoming the norm instead of the exception: I enrolled in the public school system in British Columbia along with native Canadians before coming to Penn. In the neighborhood where I grew up, the Tri-Cities in the Greater Vancouver Region, immigrants are rapidly reshaping the landscape – from running for public offices to starting their own businesses. The virtue of the Canadian immigration system is that the vast majority of immigrants fulfilled Canada’s economic needs and only 22% of immigration was for family reasons, in comparison to the US where the opposite is true according to The Economist.

Evidently, America faces challenges that are vastly different in nature from that of Canada, such as the illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America. It would be both unfair and impractical to advocate for a political agenda that focuses solely on the economic merits of high-skilled immigration while ignoring the humanitarian crisis of undocumented immigrants. However, at the same time that the government focuses on securing its border to the South, policymakers should also turn occasionally to the North in search of a long-term solution; namely, factors that contributed to an overwhelming consensus among the Canadian public on the positive economic benefits of skilled immigrants and the genuine acceptance of multiculturalism as a fundamental Canadian value. Despite the lack of political traction for comprehensive immigration reform in the US, one should remain optimistic because immigrants have been an important piece of the social fabric and a force for positive change throughout America’s history.


Works Cited:

  • “Immigration.” The White House. The White House, n.d. Web. 23 June 2014. <http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/immigration>.
  • Nakamura, David, and Ed O’Keefe. “Immigration reform effectively dead until after Obama leaves office, both sides say.” Washington Post 26 June 2014: n. pag. Web.
  • Austin, E.G.. “The United States v Canada .” The Economist 11 May 2011: n. pag. Web.
  • Zakaria, Fareed. “Immigration lessons for the U.S. from around the world.” CNN 10 June 2012: n. pag. Print.



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