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

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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