November 21, 2014 | By Sara McElmurry

Executive Action is Here—Time for a New “Start” on Legislative Reform

​President Obama’s executive action to provide deportation relief to an estimated five million undocumented immigrants―announced just last night, on the coattails of the Republican Party’s resounding mid-term election victory―puts the nation at a crossroads on immigration policy.
 
For better or worse, the President’s executive action can and will only go so far. And while many leaders on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that it’s time for legislative reform, very vocal holdouts remain, protesting that executive action will “poison the well” for reform.  Even among supporters of reform, the tune is often to “start with border security,” as one Senator-elect recently commented.
 
Yet we are hardly “starting” with security. Border security and enforcement have driven immigration policy for the better part of two decades, under both Republican and Democratic administrations. In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act expanded mandatory detention and created re-entry bars for undocumented immigrants. The 2004  creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) added an anti-terrorism focus to immigration enforcement, aided by expanded powers under the Patriot Act.  What’s more,  President Obama’s just-announced executive action includes provisions to continue the surge of resources pumped into the border to manage this summer’s influx of migrant children.
 
DHS’ FY15 budget is more than $60 billion, nearly double 2004’s $36.2 billion allocation. Of the current budget, its two enforcement agencies ―US Customs and Border Protection and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement― get $18 billion. That is more than 15 times the spending level of their predecessor, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, at the last big reform in 1986. By comparison, the combined budgets of the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives are $14.4 billion.
 
To date, the administration has returned and removed a record two million undocumented immigrants, earning Obama the nickname “deporter-in-chief” among unhappy advocates. And while President Obama’s executive action will provide deportation relief for up to five million people, it will also further centralize border security, continuing to crack down on illegal immigration at the border.  
 
Yet as security spending at the border is on the rise, the number of illegal crossings continues to fall. Net migration from Mexico fell to zero between 2005 and 2010 for a variety of reasons, some recession-related, but signs point to it staying at that level despite a strengthening US economy. In 2011, border arrests were at the lowest levels the nation has seen since 1972.  An even as activity at the border spiked in recent months as violence ravaged Central America, the number of child migrants apprehended has declined sharply as of August. 
 
Recent data strongly suggest that Americans have noticed the results yielded by enforcement efforts of recent years.
 
The 2014 Chicago Council Survey of US public opinion recorded the lowest level of concern over immigration since it began polling on the issue two decades ago. Today, an all-time-low of 47 percent of Americans prioritize controlling and reducing illegal immigration as a “very important” policy goal, down from a peak of 72 percent in 1994, according to the survey. Furthermore, only 39 percent feel that large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the US are a “critical threat,” compared to a 1994 peak of 72 percent.
 
Today, Americans feel more threatened by other issues. Chicago Council Survey respondents put cyber attacks, international terrorism, and drug-related violence near the top. They cite job protection, reducing US dependence on foreign oil, and reducing the spread of nuclear weapons as critical foreign policy goals.
 
It’s time for Congress to consider a new strategy that recognizes Americans’ policy priorities.
 
On the heels of executive action, this country’s lawmakers should look beyond security, focusing instead on the other, badly neglected items needed to fix our broken immigration system and boost the economy: updating outdated visa queues and quotas to create a world-class skilled workforce, developing a workable legal entryway for lower skilled migrant workers, and providing a path to legal status and even citizenship for millions now living in the shadows.
 
There is a tremendous opportunity for the 114th Congress if it focuses on what it can do instead of what it wants to block. This is the place to start.

About

Dina Smeltz joined The Chicago Council on Global Affairs in February 2012 as a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy, and directed the Council’s 2012 survey of American public opinion (see Foreign Policy in the New Millennium).  She has nearly 20 years of experience in designing and fielding international social, political and foreign policy surveys.

As the director of research in the Middle East and South Asia division (2001-2007) and analyst/director of the European division (1992-2004) in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department’s Office of Research, Dina conducted over a hundred surveys in these regions and regularly briefed senior government officials on key research findings. Her experience includes mass public and elite surveys as well as qualitative research.  She has written numerous policy-relevant reports on Arab, Muslim and South Asian regional attitudes toward political, economic, social and foreign policy issues.  Her writing also includes policy briefs and reports on the post-1989 political transitions in Central and Eastern Europe, and European attitudes toward a wide range foreign policy issues including globalization, European integration, immigration, NATO, and European security.

With a special emphasis research in post-conflict situations (informally referred to as a “combat pollster”), Dina has worked with research teams in Bosnia, Kosovo, Cyprus, Israel-Palestinian Territories and in Iraq (2003-2005), where she was one of the few people on the ground who could accurately report average Iraqis impressions of the postwar situation.  In the past three years, Dina has consulted for several NGOs and research organizations on projects spanning women’s development in Afghanistan, civil society in Egypt and evaluating voter education efforts in Iraq.

Dina has an MA from the University of Michigan and a BS from Pennsylvania State University.

Feel free to email Dina with comments or questions at dsmeltz@thechicagocouncil.org

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