Ideas to Action:

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Views from the Center


Spoiler alert: this is not a blog post about #DumpTrump. However, the 2016 U.S. presidential election – and last week’s Republican debate – demonstrates an increasing focus on U.S. immigration policy and reform. While many candidates are sticking to the oft-repeated refrain of ‘border security first,’ some have taken unexpected stands. We’ve been struck that the positions expressed so far don’t fall neatly along the traditional political bifurcation of “left” and “right.” There are sensible and non-sensible proposals from all sides.

Bernie Sanders has been one of the most surprising: his opposition to increased temporary, seasonal migration is a natural fit with some of the more conservative members of the GOP. Meanwhile, Jeb Bush’s support for strengthening legal migration pathways echoes recent White House policy statements.

Four perspectives have stood out to us; while most candidates have commented on immigration policy, few have expanded beyond the typical rhetoric.

Hillary Clinton

Former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been criticized in the past for her changeable views on immigration; however, she has lately taken a strong stance on immigration reform. In May, Clinton promised that she would not only uphold, but also expand, President Obama’s recent executive orders protecting an additional 4.3 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Further expansion of these controversial actions would be bold, given the legal difficulties they have encountered to date. However, Clinton has not provided very many specifics on what such reform would look like.

John Kasich

Governor John Kasich of Ohio has advocated for ‘legal status’ for undocumented immigrants (although he hasn’t definitively espoused the need for full citizenship). He’s also stated that there is a need to expand the current U.S. temporary guest worker program, although he hasn’t offered specifics on how this might work.

Marco Rubio

Since leading a failed attempt at comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, Senator Rubio has supported increased border security and interior enforcement efforts. He sets himself apart from his fellow GOP candidates in this field with his support for a path to citizenship .

Bernie Sanders

Senator Bernie Sanders supports full citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S., but does not support increased guest worker migration for economic reasons. He argues that increased numbers of immigrants would increase total labor supply, thereby lowering the demand for American workers, and depressing wages for current U.S. citizens and residents. This is disappointing, as several studies prove that this assertion is incorrect.

The candidates have one major thing in common: they largely ignore the development benefits of migration. Though it would be too much to expect non-domestic immigration concerns to take center stage in a presidential campaign, we do hope the candidates will not ignore the enormous potential gains from migration. If well regulated, migration can be a triple-win for all parties involved: migrants, sending countries, and receiving countries. For example, a Mexican migrant worker in the U.S. can make up to three times what he or she could at home. This in turn causes a huge welfare benefit for families in the country of origin, contributing to the domestic economy through increased spending on education, property, healthcare, and more. Additionally, the benefit to the U.S. is huge – immigrants help create U.S.-based jobs and increase demand for consumer products. It’s hard to argue with that.

Our migration work at CGD includes three high-level suggestions for candidates to consider as part of CGD’s new White House and the World series of low-cost, practical policy proposals to promote growth and reduce poverty abroad. One of these policy recommendations specifically aims to reform one of the thorniest aspects of U.S. immigration policy: large flows of undocumented, low-skilled immigrants.

These proposals might also help address one of the biggest challenges migrants face: the current broken visa system. Massive visa backlogs force potential migrants to consider highly dangerous irregular routes, as Marco Rubio alluded to during the Republican debate. Additionally, labor rights advocates have rightly argued that being tied to one employer under the H1 and H2 visa systems is restrictive. The U.S. government and future President need to address these challenges, among many others. 

Current calls for immigration reform are taking place in a highly divisive and turbulent political landscape. Serious efforts at comprehensive immigration reform have failed twice in the last decade, while President Obama’s controversial executive actions sparked widespread ire in the Republican Party and have been stalled in federal court. The potential for bipartisan cooperation may have been exhausted in the short term. Therefore, it will be especially interesting to see who is willing to stand up to reform on the campaign trail – especially if it means diverging from the party line.



CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.