Even as U.S. leaders' attention turns to foreign conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, Nigeria, Iraq and even Kenya, at home there continues to be an unattended and growing crisis — an immigration crisis.
The inability of the House of Representatives to deal with immigration reform — whether on the basis of 2013 Senate Bill 744 or on its own terms — and President Obama's dismal leadership on the issue are having serious consequences inside and outside the federal government. Moreover, the political gridlock on immigration reform may be strengthening the hand of organized criminal groups in Central America, undermining U.S. foreign policy efforts in the region. Let me explain further.
At the same time, border agencies, focused on illegality, are unable to manage legal border flows efficiently, creating frustration among legitimate border crossers from tourists to shoppers to businesses — more than 99 percent of all crossborder traffic. The strain on federal agencies is a direct consequence of the government's inability to reform the system in order to establish orderly patterns of migration and resettlement in the United States and to rationalize the use of federal forces for a better border management system.
At the local level, states and cities are beginning to enter the fray — again, much as they did before the Supreme Court overturned certain provisions of S.B. 1070, Arizona's controversial anti-immigrant law. In dramatically different ways, the states are returning to immigration issues because they tend to do so when the federal government is unable to deal with an issue that has its biggest impact in local communities. While some conservative Texas legislators are calling on Gov. Rick Perry (R) to call a special session of the state legislature to deal with the immigration crisis in South Texas, for example, some lawmakers in New York are proposing a bill creating "state citizenship," which would grant a broad number of rights to undocumented migrants, including Medicaid coverage and even voting rights in local elections. This means that local debates on immigration are heating up again, as a consequence of Congress and the president's unwillingness to deal with the immigration crisis as well as partisan posturing ahead of the 2014 midterm elections.
The immigration crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better, if Congress does not act. At least half of all undocumented migrants to the United States now come from Central America, where economic and public safety conditions continue to deteriorate. As the American economy continues its recovery, these strong "push factors" of migration will be coupled with "pull factors" in the United States like political stability and job opportunities, which also motivate migrants to make the trek north. A surge of undocumented immigrants is ever more likely under these conditions in the next few years.
Finally, no one yet understands the degree to which the inability of the United States to deal with immigration has further strengthened criminal organizations, which make millions of dollars from the poorest migrants, who have to rely even more heavily on expensive smugglers to help them cross the border. Unwittingly, we may be helping to strengthen organized crime abroad in a way that undermines our own policy objectives to foster human development and public safety in the very countries sending migrants to the United States.
In hindsight, 2013 was yet another wasted opportunity for Congress and the president to deal with this issue. The 2014 elections preclude the possibility of an immigration reform bill being passed this year. And in 2015, presidential elections will once again take the stage, with each party focused on myopic electoral calculations rather than long-term policy solutions. In the meantime, a lot is at stake: not only the future of millions of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., but also the future of millions of others being pushed and pulled by political, social and economic forces beyond their control, in addition to the sanity of border control policy. The vast majority of these people are just seeking better lives and U.S. federal agencies are doing their job, however criticizable, but all awaiting a rational immigration policy, one that will be generous to the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" and help border agencies both to be more humane in their treatment of migrants and to manage the border more effectively.
Payan, Ph.D., is director of the Mexico Center at Rice University's Baker Institute. He is the editor of a forthcoming volume titled Undecided Nation: Political Gridlock and the Immigration Crisis.