These days, legitimate immigration policy discussion and debate is too often overshadowed by rhetoric that vilifies immigrants, both documented and undocumented, unfairly blaming them for a host of societal ills and economic problems that have little to do with immigrants per se. The entire immigration policy arena has become highly charged and partisan.
That need not be the case. Now is a good time to recall that, despite today’s political polarization, there is pragmatic, sensible middle ground on immigration policy. Contrary to a persistent stereotype, that middle ground is alive and well in the heartland of the United States.
In 2011, at a time when immigration reform efforts were at a standstill on the national level, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs brought together a bipartisan group of political and civic leaders from across the twelve-state greater Midwest region. The Midwest Immigration Task Force included former mayors and governors, current and former CEOs, heads of universities, and religious, labor, and civil-society leaders who were struggling to respond to current realities and the lack of national-level reforms. The task force held regional dialogues in seven cities throughout the Midwest – Chicago, Des Moines, Detroit, Fargo, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and West Lafayette – and surveyed a representative sample of the region’s citizens for their views on immigration policy.
In February 2013 – five years ago this month – the bipartisan task force released its consensus report, US Economic Competitiveness at Risk: A Midwest Call to Action on Immigration Reform. The report drove home a clear message: immigrants are hugely important to the economic vitality of Midwestern towns and cities, and to the key sectors that drive the region’s economic growth, particularly as the region faces an aging and shrinking native-born workforce.
Midwest civic leaders argued that newcomers play a central role in the region’s economic competitiveness. And they did not see immigrants solely as economic contributors, but also as human beings whose needs, aspirations, and cultural diversity all contribute to the fabric of our society. Task force members insisted on considering the moral and ethical dimensions of immigration policy, including factors related to human rights, the history of American foreign policy interventions, labor rights, and family reunification. The task force looked closely at both the challenges as well as the opportunities posed by immigration.
In their report, they issued a comprehensive set of recommendations. They recognized the need for providing more visas for both high-skilled and lower-skilled immigrants to meet workforce demand in the US. They recommended creating new visas for year-round temporary workers to fill those hospitality, agriculture, and healthcare needs not being addressed by seasonal-employment visas. They agreed that better tools are needed for employers to stay on the right side of the law once new legal pathways for hiring are in place. They argued that STEM students from US universities should be urged to stay and work in the region, rather than be asked to leave. They acknowledged that despite enormous investments in border security since 2001, there is still work to be done on monitoring visa overstays and improving coordination among law enforcement agencies. And they also concluded that the government must provide a permanent answer for children brought to the United States illegally.
Conservatives and progressives might each quibble with some of the specifics, but as the report makes abundantly clear, there is much common ground.
After the Midwest task force report was released, several Illinois-based task force members spun off a new nonpartisan advocacy group, the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition. And since 2013, the Council on Global Affairs has issued a continuing series of reports on specific topics, such as immigrants in the healthcare, hospitality, and agriculture sectors, retaining US-educated foreign-born students, demographic shifts in Midwest metro areas, and national security and public safety. The Council also continues to bring together Midwestern civic and business leaders to identify bipartisan solutions to polarizing issues in the immigration debate.
The Trump administration has set forth extreme policy positions – including drastic cuts to legal immigration – that are out of touch with the needs of the economy, with core American values, and with the stated preferences of Midwestern civic leaders.
In the context of the current policy environment, it is worth revisiting the work of the Midwest task force to remind those of us in the Midwest and around the country that there is a powerful consensus, across a broad political spectrum, around a core set of values and policy approaches.
Note: John Slocum served from 2006 to 2016 as the director of the migration program at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which provided funding for the Midwest Immigration Task Force, as did the Exelon Foundation, The Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, Lumina Foundation, and Chicago Council Board member Clare Muñana. The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Juliana Kerr.