A Sociologist Offers 3 Cautionary Points About Immigration Reform

National Journal

As the nation explores immigration reform, The Next America is asking scholars, analysts, policymakers, and others a simple question: If you were to take your expertise before Congress to better explain the short- and long-range challenges facing an increasingly demographically diverse nation, what three points might you make?

Sociology professor Philip Kasinitz chairs the doctoral program at the Graduate Center and Hunter College of the City University of New York. He has authored many books on immigration and migration, including his most recent, Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age.

Below are the points he would make in the discussion about immigration reform.

ISSUES OF ECONOMICS, AGING, AND INCLUSION. Immigration has been a hugely positive force in American economic and cultural life. The aging of the baby boomers means that the U.S. will probably continue to need to admit large numbers of immigrants for decades to come. The long-term integration of the immigrants' children is a more mixed  picture, but increasingly the evidence shows that this too has been generally successful, at least in the long run. The parts of the country where immigrant incorporation has been most problematic — and where immigration is the most politically controversial — are generally those places with large numbers of recent arrivals and where many immigrants are undocumented.

UNDERCLASS AND LACK OF OPPORTUNITY. The situation of the undocumented is the most tragic aspect of the current immigration problem, made more so by the fact that it is largely the result of misguided policy. The U.S. has made it much tougher for unauthorized migrants to regularize their status, and, ironically, tighter border enforcement has made people reluctant to leave. The result is that we are creating an underclass that is shut out of opportunities for upward mobility. Of course, it should also be remembered that most immigrants are here legally.

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THE ISSUE OF GUEST WORKERS. Immigration reform may end up including some sort of temporary guest-worker provision. Such programs are politically attractive. They offer employers access to immigrant labor while being more acceptable to conservatives than outright legalization. And, of course, many immigrants and their advocates see such programs as an improvement over what we have now. But frankly the idea leaves me a bit queasy. The record on temporary worker programs, both in the U.S. and in Europe, is not good. They risk creating a permanent class of people who are part of the country economically and socially but not politically. That ill-serves a democratic society. I think we should be encouraging civic participation and social inclusion and to do that we need a clear, practical path to legal permanent residence and eventual citizenship.