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Friday, March 16, 2007

USA/Mexico politics: Immigration reform, round two


US President Bush has had few gifts to offer his allies in Latin America during his visit in recent days to five countries in the region. While he continues to hold up the prospect of a comprehensive reform of US immigration laws, progress over the last year has been undermined by divisions in Congress and Mr Bush’s lagging political authority.

The topic is still a key one on the agenda as Mr Bush meets with Mexican President Felipe Calderón on March 13th. And there has been recent momentum in trying to get a new bill out of Capitol Hill. However, Mr Calderón, quite wisely, is apt to keep popular expectations at home relatively low.

Mr Calderón’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, placed big bets on the promise of immigration reform early in his term in 2000-01. Mexicans represent the largest immigrant group in the US, so the issue is a vital one in bilateral relations. Early in his first term Mr Bush also put it at the top of his list of priorities for domestic policy.

But the prospects for reform diminished severely thereafter. Since the terrorist attacks of September 2001 many congressmen, and particularly Republicans, have emphasised tighter border security and have rejected any perceived opening to immigrants. In late 2005 and early 2006 vastly different immigration reform bills emerged from the Senate and the House of Representatives, and efforts to reconcile them stalled. In the meantime, draconian measures such as beefing up border patrols and building a 700-mile border fence have been implemented. These have been widely resented by Mexicans, and have contributed to uneasiness in relations between the two countries.

What has changed?

On the face of it, chances for an immigration overhaul have improved now that Democrats control Congress. They are more amenable to some of Mr Bush’s proposals—such as expansion of a guest workers programme and establishment of a path to legalisation for many of the 12m undocumented aliens in the US. Indeed, immigration is one of the few issues on which the White House and Democrats see a basis for co-operation.

However, there are divisions even among Democrats on the issue. And it is not clear whether the current political climate will be any more conducive to reform. Other problems, particularly the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, have taken precedence, and campaigning for the 2008 presidential election has already begun.

Lawmakers have been working in recent weeks to revive and revise their immigration reform proposals, and optimists—including some business and immigrant groups—believe that agreement on a comprehensive overhaul is still possible this year. To make the bill palatable, it will contain enhanced security provisions, but Democrats also will push for what they call "earned legalisation", involving a combination of fines, taxes and other conditions that would enable an undocumented worker to become a legal resident.

Business lobbies are pushing for change harder than ever. This is the result in part of stepped up raids in recent weeks and months on workplaces that hire illegals as well as increased federal enforcement of employer sanctions by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. Beyond this, employers in the agricultural and other sectors say they are beginning to be adversely affected by worker shortages.

Battle royal

Still, if a bill is brought to the floor of both houses, a fight is likely, and there is no guarantee that all the necessary votes can be secured. Most Republicans will continue to favour security measures and workplace enforcement over any plan to legalise alien workers. The Senate’s bipartisan bill last year, which did include a temporary workers programme and a path to citizenship, passed by a vote of 62 (including 23 Republicans) to 36. Yet this was based on a fragile coalition of forces, and even some of the freshman Democratic senators say they would not vote for anything perceived to be “amnesty” for illegals.

Even if a reform bill gets broad support in the Senate, the battle will be tougher in the lower house, as it was a year ago. It is believed that at least 50 or so hard-core Republican members of the House (total 435 seats) will never vote for immigration reform. Experts suggest that at least 20 Republican senators (out of 49) and 40 Republican House members (out of 202) will have to vote “yes” if the bill is not to get bogged down in procedural manoeuvres.

Will Mr Bush be willing to expend much of his diminished political capital to get the required number of Republicans on board? He implies that he would, and there are few other issues out there on which he might be able to claim victory in what remains of his term. He says he hopes to see a bill completed by the autumn, but time may be fast running out.

Watching cautiously

Meanwhile, the Mexicans, and others, will be watching carefully. Failure to secure a plan to regularise the situation of so many Mexican immigrants could complicate the alliance between the two countries, and could increase anti-American sentiment south of the border—as evidenced by the protests that awaited Mr Bush in each country he has visited.

On the other hand, Mr Calderón would have much to gain politically if immigration reform were to advance. He would be able to deliver on the promise that his predecessor made, and in so doing bolster his legitimacy and deflate that of the leftist opposition, still railing against him after last year’s close presidential election.

In the end, however, US domestic politics, rather than the wisdom of trying to ameliorate Washington’s damaged relations with Mexico and other Latin American countries, will determine whether immigration reform can advance in the months ahead. Immigration is a highly emotionally charged issue for much of the American public, and under the pressure of early campaign electioneering, a bill might not reach Mr Bush’s desk any time soon.

The Economist Intelligence Unit
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