But there is one critical player missing from the effort: Mexico. No reform can be successfully devised or implemented without the willing participation of the Mexican government and public, so why not get them involved from the start?
That involvement needs to begin May 2, when President Obama visits Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. And it should start with Obama admitting the obvious: He needs help.
Although many elements of an immigration bill remain unresolved, three objectives are essential: legalizing the current population of unauthorized migrants, creating an effective enforcement system that thwarts recurring illegal immigration and channeling future flows through temporary and permanent migration programs. None of these goals can be accomplished — let alone all three at once — without engaging Mexico as a full partner.
About 12 million people born in Mexico live in the United States. They account for 30 percent of the foreign-born population. They are not going away. Rather, their numbers will grow.
Despite a predictable downturn during the Great Recession, the U.S. labor market has not lost its appetite for Mexican workers. Even with a tepid economy, we can expect a net flow averaging 260,000 people, both legal and illegal, every year through 2017, according to a recent study by the Wilson Center and the Migration Policy Institute. That is almost back to the pre-recession level of 280,000 migrants a year. And the study concluded that if the U.S. economy lights up, particularly in the construction sector, the estimated net flow could reach 330,000 a year before the end of the decade.
Moreover, the unauthorized population has proved remarkably resilient. Since Obama took office in 2009, more than 1.2 million people have been removed from the country, but new arrivals have taken their place. Despite the deportations and record numbers of Border Patrol agents, the Department of Homeland Security estimates that the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States has remained the same — about 11.5 million — for at least three years now. About 60 percent are from Mexico.
The last time Washington tried a legalization program, in 1986, Congress limited eligibility to long-time residents and farmworkers, and the application process was an obstacle course. As a result, only about half of the unauthorized population received legal status. That left a big underground population, and all of the human networks and illicit businesses that facilitate unauthorized migration remained in place. The big lesson from 1986 is that partial amnesties don’t accomplish the long-term goal of eliminating illegal immigration.