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Why 2014 will be the year of immigration reform

The U.S. Capitol dome is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington.Reuters

A curious case of generational timing can be observed in the fact that major changes to U.S. immigration policy occur once every two and half decades. 

It has been 27 years since the last generational shift, and other signs indicate that 2014 is likely to the “Year of Immigration Reform.” 

Barack Obama in 2014, like Ronald Reagan in 1986, is in the sixth year of his presidency, likewise re-elected but wounded and looking for ways to cement his legacy.

'The laws that most fundamentally shape nations and cultures usually aren’t five-thousand page tomes, but the one-line fundamentals.'

Outright racist protectionism led to the first border controls enacted in 1875 and 1907, including deportations and bans on Chinese, then Japanese, and ultimately all migrants from Asia.

 Back then, Mexican migrants were welcomed whereas Asians were not. 

The flow of guest workers was formalized in 1942 when the Bracero program began. 

Two decades and two years later, Congress fundamentally shifted immigration policy to favor family reunification in a 1965 reform, which curtailed the guest worker program. 

That was updated two decades and two years hence, in 1986, when President Reagan famously championed a one-time immigration amnesty.

Looking back, all of the changes were fundamental, but that doesn’t mean they were big. That hints at the likely shape of 2014 reform.

The previous once-a-generation laws were not intended to be earth-shaking reforms. They just turned out that way. Call it the butterfly effect if you must, or the law of unintended consequences, but the fact is that small but meaningful changes in design can have large effects.  

The laws that most fundamentally shape nations and cultures usually aren’t five-thousand page tomes, but the one-line fundamentals:

- Though shalt not kill.

- Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

- [A]ll persons held as slaves within any … in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.

That lesson explains the failed congressional efforts in 2005, 2006, and 2007 to pass “comprehensive” immigration reform. 

In the wake of ObamaCare, any kind of comprehensive legislation on any issue will be a non-starter for the next few years, and maybe much longer. The public is rightfully suspicious of laws that are too complex to be read, let alone executed. Policy reform will have to be incremental, focused, and transparent.

For those working in the policy trenches, three big lessons were drawn from the experience of 2005-2007:

First, comprehensive is a word that often was a mask insincerity, allowing opponents of reform to masquerade as proponents. Contrary to public perceptions, immigration does not divide neatly across political lines. The strongest pro-immigrant advocates tend to be libertarians in the Republican party and the most ardent opponents are unionists in the Democratic party.  

Don’t forget that there are nine Democrats in the Senate now who voted against the 2007 McCain-Kennedy reform bill, people like Debbie Stabenow and Tom Harkin who share the anti-immigrant bias of their unionized base.

The second lesson is that many politicians prefer inaction on issues like this because it allows them to grandstand politically. 

Supposedly conservative politicians can sound tough despite knowing that inaction allows the de facto amnesty to continue. 

Supposedly liberal politicians can pretend to be caring of Hispanics knowing that the status quo allows undocumented workers to be abused. Big Business and Big Labor are delighted while the voters are distracted.

Thus the third lesson: comprehensive bills tend to include poison pills. That describes the Senate bill passed in June, seemingly humane, but designed not to become law.  If you think the bill is pro-immigrant, then you have been fooled just like most economists.

Economists tend to favor more immigration at all skill levels, because they know that the effects are positive for the nation and also for native workers. 

A famous example is the influx of Russian immigrants to Israel in the early 1990s, increasing the national population by 7 percent in just two years. Research of the impact found a net increase in national output but also a net increase in native wages, even a proportional increase in the wages of occupations most affected.

As expected, an overwhelming majority of economist I surveyed (91 percent) support increasing the number of legal immigrants (with 49 percent agreeing strongly). And when I asked these same people about a policy to penalize companies that displace native workers, 86 percent of panelists were opposed. Such a policy is hostile to immigrant workers and will cause a chilling effect on hiring of Hispanics. Yet that non-displacement rule is a little-known clause in the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill, exactly the kind of poison pill that libertarians will oppose.

True friends of immigration have learned to distrust the word comprehensive.

The House of Representatives under the leadership of Speaker John Boehner have been quietly working on a series of incremental immigration bills. 

Contrary to the provocative and vapid punditry claiming the Senate’s heroic efforts have “stalled” in the House, Boehner has actually shepherded these little reforms through committee, and has them poised for full passage whenever Democrats get serious about policy instead of politics. I’m betting 2014 is that time.

The ground shifted a few days before Thanksgiving when the White House finally gave up on the canard of comprehensive reform. “They’re suspicious of comprehensive bills, but you know what? If they want to chop that thing up into five pieces, as long as all five pieces get done, I don’t care what it looks like,” said Mr. Obama. The very next day, congressional Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi agreed with the new approach.

Maybe President Obama felt the need to change the subject from Obamacare, or maybe he was finally taking the advice of his former chief economist, Austan Goolsbee, to focus on reforms where all sides agree. 

Republicans are eager to present their party as more than mere obstructionists. Democrats are eager to do something, anything, besides health care. Unions who oppose migrants are weak. Entrepreneurs who favor foreign workers (many tech firms have migrant co-founders) are strong, and impatient.

Here’s a little big idea supported by every think tank in D.C.: staple a green card to the diploma of every foreign-born science and engineering graduate of America’s universities. I suspect that will be the first reform of 2014, and it will open the door for more. About time.

Tim Kane is a full time Research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Kane is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, San Diego. He co-authoring (with Glenn Hubbard) of "Balance: Why Great Powers Lose It and How America Can Regain It," (Simon & Schuster 2013).