Skip to main content

UNC faculty members see immigration reform on the horizon

Over the next few months, many around the country, including students, faculty and staff at UNC, will be watching closely to see what, if any, political progress develops over the one domestic issue that has long divided much of America: immigration reform.

The latest interest in overhauling the U.S. immigration system appears to have been spearheaded by the re-election in November of President Barack Obama, who received more than 70 percent of the Latino vote. But just how soon Washington may tackle the controversial issue is unclear, especially with lawmakers still mired in debate over the nation’s fiscal debt. There is also speculation that, given the December mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, gun control legislation will likely take a front seat to immigration.

Still, after decades of limited political action on the issue, lawmakers appear poised to address the legalization of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in the United States. Josh Hinson, a UNC School of Social Work clinical instructor and program director of UNC’s Graduate Certificate in Global Transmigration, is among those hoping to see comprehensive reform.

Hinson, who has worked closely with immigrant and refugee populations, teaches students who are interested in learning more about the impact of migration on communities as well as the professional practice skills needed to work with immigrants and their families. One goal is to help his students better understand the realities of reform. History, he said, has shown that creating a pathway to citizenship that is politically and publicly palatable is not easy.

“There are a few extreme scenarios that we’ve talked about in class and one is that with a stroke of pen, we could end this problem (of undocumented immigrants) with amnesty,” he explained. “You know—everybody is a citizen. But that’s such a hot political issue, so that’s probably not going to happen. Another is you build an electrified fence, and you put motion sensing machine-guns on top of it. But liberal democracies don’t like to take those kinds of drastic steps either. Ultimately, the issue is overwhelming because it obviously touches on so many different systems, and there are so many different pieces that need to be reformed.”

Despite deporting a record number 1.5 million undocumented immigrants during his first term, President Obama has signaled a willingness to move forward on immigration. The president announced in June that he would stop deporting young immigrants who were brought illegally to the United States as children as long as they do not pose a security threat. The executive action also allows qualified immigrants under the age of 30 to stay in the country and to work as long as they apply for and are approved for a two-year deferred action on deportation. Most of the nation’s undocumented immigrants hail from Latin America and Mexico.

Earlier this month, the White House administration also ordered that visa requirements be loosened for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants. This action allows immigrants who entered the United States illegally to apply for a waiver for permanent residency as long as they have a child, spouse or parent who is already a U.S. citizen. Qualified applicants will be allowed to remain in the country—a change from the previous policy—while waiting for their waivers to be approved as long as they are law-abiding residents and can show that their families would face hardship without their presence.

Such recent policy changes, critics say, simply reward illegal behavior. They see border control and enforcement programs as the most effective deterrents to illegal immigration. The recently scrapped 287(g) program allowed specially trained state and local law officers to enforce federal immigration law, though it was often criticized for increasing racial profiling. Federal authorities began replacing that program with another—Secure Communities—late last year. The new program automatically allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation to check a flagged inmate’s fingerprints against a federal database to identify individuals who have criminal backgrounds or are in the country illegally.

Arguments from both sides of the aisle further demonstrate just how difficult it may be to drum up political and public support for broader legislation, said Joanne Caye, a clinical associate professor at UNC’s School of Social Work.

“I think the biggest challenge to passing reform will be the general anti-immigration lobby,” she said. “Unfortunately, I just think there’s a tremendous amount of fear out there.”

Caye, who is studying for her Ph.D., is researching why older Hispanic residents who have lived legally in the United States for years are now choosing to become naturalized American citizens. For the last three years, Caye has also taught a citizenship class each week in Siler City, just west of Chapel Hill. More than 50 percent of Siler City’s population is Latino. Most of her students, she said, are U.S. legal permanent residents, meaning they have “green cards” that give them the authority to live and work in the country. Many, she added, arrived from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, with limited educations and limited English skills but with an eagerness to learn.

Although she, too, often struggles with the issues of immigration, Caye worries that the current system does more to keep families in poverty by forcing them to “live underground.”

“And these folks are not going anywhere—they’re staying, especially if they have children who are citizens,” she said. “So I think we need to be honest about helping families to succeed—all families. And we really need to give some thought about helping the people who are here, especially the ones with kids who are citizens, to stay here legally.”

Historically, comprehensive plans to overhaul the immigration system have been unsuccessfully floated in Washington for the last decade. Billions of dollars have also been spent to try and secure the nation’s borders. Those efforts have done little to decrease the number of undocumented immigrants, in part, because contrary to public perception, not all entered the country illegally. The Pew Hispanic Center—a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C—reports that nearly half arrived with legal visas but remained after those documents expired.

In addition, other mass reform proposals have largely failed to advance because of public and political resistance to any laws that would make it easier for undocumented immigrants to permanently settle within the United States.

So what’s different this time? According to media reports, the growing share of Hispanic voters is the key to current reform discussions. Obama’s win in November, thanks to overwhelming Latino support, was a wake-up call for much of the country, especially those on Capitol Hill, said Niklaus Steiner, director for UNC’s Center for Global Initiatives. Republicans and Democrats now realize that continuing to ignore or delay action on immigration could be politically costly, added Steiner, whose research and teaching interests include migration, refugees, nationalism, and citizenship.

“The 2012 election was seismic for the immigration issue, and we’ll see significant reform in the next year or two,” Steiner said. “There will be, however, difficult internal conversations within the Republican Party because it is badly torn on this issue. I predict, though, that party leaders—painfully aware of the recent election results—and the business community—aware of the economic value of reform—will put significant pressure on recalcitrant House members so that enough of them will agree to support reform.”

Religious leaders will also likely “appeal to House members’ sense of morality and family values to help tip the scale,” on support for a reform package, Steiner said.

Because North Carolina is among a handful of Southern states that has experienced a significant increase in its Latino population, any changes in immigration policies will be felt widely across the state. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, in 2010, there were 805,000 Latinos in North Carolina, or about 8 percent of the state’s total population. Much of the increase occurred between 1990 and 2000, when North Carolina had the highest rate of growth of any other state in the country.

Researchers say the current U.S. recession is one reason the number of undocumented immigrants has declined from a peak of 12 million. Even so, many of these residents, including those in North Carolina, were drawn here for employment, such as jobs in farming, construction, and the service industry. But, the demand for both low- and high-skilled foreign workers continues to exceed the number of U.S. visas available, noted Hannah Gill, director of the UNC Latino Migration Project at the Institute for the Study of the Americas and the Center for Global Initiatives. As a result, those who are eligible for visas sometimes wait decades to receive one, she said. The current backlog also means that foreign workers are likely to cross the border illegally and that employers are willing to view these workers as cheap labor.

“We need to make it possible for people to come to this country legally,” Gill said. “There needs to be a match between the reality of the demand in the United States that we have for immigrant labor and the sorts of legal recourses that people have to take advantage of that labor.”

While amnesty may be the more controversial piece to creating a path to citizenship, some lawmakers have also suggested a legislative package that would require undocumented immigrants to: come forward to register their legal status, to undergo mandatory background checks, to pay fines for staying in the country illegally, and to learn English.

Negotiations over such details “will pose the greatest obstacles,” Steiner said.

“There will be a lot of horse trading so that everyone can walk away feeling like they got something they wanted,” he said. “But the bottom line is that all 11 million will receive legal status and a road to citizenship for the simple reason that there is no alternative. Deporting all of them is logistically, economically, morally and politically impossible, and leaving them in the shadows of society harms everyone except the unscrupulous employers who hire them. While opponents of mass legalization do not like it, many will reluctantly come to accept it as the least worst option.”

Ultimately, when Hinson thinks about immigrants, he also considers other groups of people that the general public often fails to think about, including the Karen, Burmese, Afghanis, Iraqis, Haitians, and Cubans. Many members of these populations were refugees and over the years, have been resettled in communities in North Carolina. Under the current U.S. immigration system, these residents also have limited access to services.

Even if congressional leaders finally settle on a long-term solution that addresses all of these diverse populations, Hinson wonders what other potential challenges may be ahead.

“I wonder would some states refuse to implement (the new law) like some did during the civil rights era and like some are doing now with the Affordable Care Act?” he said. “Would the National Guard have to be called out? Again, these may sound like extremes, but advocates and opponents have for years demonstrated just how divisive this issue can be. I’m hopeful some common ground can be found.”