The Time is Ripe for Immigration Reform

The current attentions of the Obama administration and the progressive political community, not surprisingly, are focused on putting the U.S. economy fully back on course, passing meaningful health care reform, determining ways to deal effectively with a worsening military situation in Afghanistan, and the looming threat of a nuclear Iran. At the same time, the results of several recent polls conducted in both Mexico and the United States suggest that this is also a propitious moment to move immigration reform to the front burner, not simply because it is a positive value in its own right, but because of its potential to impact other issues of concern.

A national survey conducted in Mexico by the Pew Global Attitudes Project points to rising economic and social pressures within that country that make emigration to the United States an increasingly appealing alternative for Mexicans, but also to improved attitudes toward America and its leaders that should encourage Mexico to endorse positive steps taken by the United States takes to reform its immigration policies.

According to Pew, large majorities of Mexicans believe that crime (81%), economic problems (75%), illegal drugs (73%), and political corruption (68%) are very big problems facing their nation. Most everyone else perceives these to be at least minor problems. All of these numbers, especially the concern with crime and drugs, have increased significantly since Pew's last survey of Mexico in 2007. In addition, only about a third believe that the courts (37%) and police (35%) have a positive impact on the country. A slight majority (51%) claims that they had to offer a gift or bribe to an official within the past year in order to receive a government service or document. Overall, more than three-quarters (78%) are now dissatisfied with Mexico's direction, up ten percentage points over the past year.

It is true that not all of the survey results are negative. Solid majorities give the Mexican military (77%), President Felipe Calderon (75%), the national government (72%), and the media (68%) favorable evaluations. Virtually everyone supports Mexico's aggressive war against drug traffickers (83%) and most also believe that the country is making real progress in that effort (66%). Additionally, a large majority (76%) approve of the Mexican government's handling of the H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak that began in the country last spring.

Still, a significant number of Mexicans are unhappy enough with conditions in their country that they would consider moving elsewhere. A clear majority (57%) believe that Mexicans who move to the United States have a better life in America than in Mexico, a number that is up by six-percentage points over the past two years. Those who have friends or relatives in the States with whom they communicate or visit regularly especially feel that way and most of those (70%) also believe that their acquaintances have "achieved their goals" in emigrating north of the border. As a result, a third of Mexicans (33%) say that, if they had the means or opportunity, they would go to live in the United States. Of these, more than half (18% of all respondents) says they would do so without "authorization."

Of course, relatively few of those saying they would move to the United States will actually cross the border. It is very easy for someone to tell a survey interviewer that they are willing to take such a major step. It is far more difficult to actually do so.  And, in fact, as a result of America's own economic difficulties immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries, both documented and undocumented has declined over the past year. Still, if even five- or ten percent of those Mexicans indicating an interest and willingness to move to the U.S. were to do that it would represent between 2 and 4.5 million people, a number that would have significant impact on the societies, economies, public safety, and national security of both nations.

Given this, reform of U.S. immigration policies is crucial. This reform must both regularize the flow of new immigrants into the United States and clarify the status of those who are already here, and it must do so consistent with the most humane and tolerant American and progressive values.

Fortunately, there are clear indications that both Mexicans and Americans may be open to such an approach. Since the election and inauguration of Barack Obama Mexican attitudes toward the United States and willingness to cooperate with it have improved significantly. A majority of Mexicans have confidence that President Obama will do the right thing in world affairs (55%). This is well above the 16% who had similar confidence in George W. Bush in the last year of his administration. It is also far better than the scant 9% who have confidence in Venezuela's America-baiting president, Hugo Chavez. As a result, the number of Mexicans who have favorable impressions of the U.S. has risen from 47% in 2008 to 69% now; the highest level since Pew first researched the matter in 1999. Most Mexicans also support a range of interactions between the two countries. Three-quarters (76%) say that the economic ties linking Mexico and the United States are a good thing, something that benefits both nations. Moreover, a large majority supports U.S. assistance in training the Mexican police and military (78%) and providing weapons and money (63%) to aid Mexico in its war against drugs. Almost a third (30%) would go so far as to permit the deployment of American troops in Mexico to assist in the anti-drug effort.

Finally, while many Mexicans are personally willing to move to the U.S. and believe that the experiences of their countrymen in America have been good, most also sense that continued large-scale emigration may not be in Mexico's best interests. An overwhelming 81% believe that the fact many people leave Mexico for jobs elsewhere is a significant problem for their country and a plurality (48%) say it is bad for Mexico that so many of its citizens live in the United States.

Pew research also indicates an increased willingness north of the border to support humane and progressive immigration reform. Led by the emerging Millennials (born 1982-2003), a generation that is 40% non-Caucasian, and among which one in five members has at least one immigrant parent, the percentage who support increased restrictions and controls on immigration into the United States has declined from 80% in 2002 to 73% now. Millennials in particular reject the contention that the increased number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values (35% vs. 55% for older generations). Most important, support for an immigration reform policy that would provide a way for undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. to gain legal citizenship by passing a background check, paying a fine, and holding a job increased from 58% in 2007 to 63% this year.

While the political community's current focus on economic recovery, health care reform, Afghanistan and Iran is certainly understandable, the need for immigration reform remains. It is crucial that progressives take the lead on this issue. As Joe Wilson's "you lie" reaction to the president's assurances that health care reforms would not apply to undocumented immigrants demonstrates, the radical right is more than willing to exploit fear and prejudice on this issue and to use them in its efforts to derail key items on the Democratic agenda. Fortunately, recent polling suggests that the time is ripe and the public on both sides of the border receptive to progressive policies that would finally reform America's broken immigration system.