The World Changed a Lot Since 1986. The Politics of Immigration Hasn't | Opinion

In pursuing a bold agenda to tackle the pandemic, build new infrastructure and halt climate change, there is a futuristic feeling to the Biden administration's early policy blitz. But its immigration bill, is retro.

It's not retrograde. It's just retrospective.

In 1986, former President Ronald Reagan signed the last major overhaul of U.S. immigration law, the Immigration Reform and Control Act. IRCA, as it is known, increased border security, established penalties for employers that hired undocumented immigrants and legalized the status of about 3 million undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. prior to 1982.

"Future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people: American citizenship," Reagan said upon signing the legislation.

Similarly, the Biden administration's bill grants legal status to millions of farmworkers, Dreamers who arrived in the U.S. as children, people with Temporary Protected Status who cannot return home because of wars or natural disasters and charts a path to vetting millions of other undocumented immigrants for legal status.

If signed, the strengths of this bill lie in how it would help people who are now practically—if not legally—our fellow Americans. Its limitation is its lack of consideration for who will be our fellow Americans in the future.

Scarred by post-1986 attempts to pass grand compromises, Democrats narrowly scoped the newest bill to only address the unresolved status of undocumented and temporary humanitarian immigrants. It thus ignores the antiquated U.S. immigration admissions system, which makes the bill easier to pass but is precisely what created incentives for people to be unlawfully present in the first place.

For their part, Republicans argue that the earlier amnesty drove future waves of undocumented immigrants to the United States, and they are loathe to support any bill that does the same.

Both parties therefore see immigration through 1986 lenses—which probably look a lot like the aviators President Joe Biden likes to wear.

We cannot advance into our immigration future when our two parties are so focused on our immigration past.

Like medicine, infrastructure and climate science—President Biden's primary policy focuses—immigration is competitive too. Countries compete for immigrants to make up for their declining populations and address skilled and unskilled job shortages. Governments that do this better build a stronger society and a deeper pool of talent that may invent vaccines, compete in the Olympics, or otherwise contribute to their country in more conventional ways.

The last time the United States redesigned the admissions policies that select newcomers was 1965—a time when the cutting edge was occupied by audio cassettes and handheld calculators, and some public places were still segregated.

This 1960s model of immigration does not provide enough legal channels to supply the U.S. economy with low-skilled or high-skilled labor. Meanwhile, other countries developed systems that facilitate easy access to temporary labor visas for seasonal or circular migration, where immigrants may work and return home with the cycles of business demand. Some of our peers have sophisticated programs to recruit or select applicants that meet national targets and goals.

Biden sunglasses
Joe Biden takes off his sunglasses while speaking at a campaign stop at Community College of Beaver County on November 2, 2020, in Monaca, Pennsylvania. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Our 55-year old admissions system fails to forecast immigration as part of a global equilibrium where international inequality between less developed and rich countries drives human mobility between them. It also does not provide a robust system for asylum processing, particularly one that accounts for the persistent waves of forced migrants produced by climate change, gang violence, corruption and poverty in Central America today. None of these push factors qualify asylum seekers for humanitarian protection and yet they feel they cannot go home.

It is this 1965 system—and its inability to account for these unanticipated developments—that generated 3 million undocumented immigrants to regularize in 1986, and 11 million more today.

Democrats who are unwilling to expand this dated system because they favor its principal focus on family-sponsored migration must recognize that they are contributing to the creation of more undocumented immigrants in the future by failing to adapt to the drastic global changes and economic developments that are forcing migration now.

Republicans who are unwilling to regularize today's undocumented immigrants must recognize that their stubbornness has not reduced the numbers of people approaching the U.S. border, and that in fact, granting status is the fastest way to facilitate many people's return home.

All Americans must recognize that the combination of aging and declining fertility rates is about to slow our country's population growth to zero. To stay globally competitive with other world powers and peers, the United States needs people.

While we stand to benefit enormously from the legalization of our 11 million friends and neighbors who have patiently paid their dues for decades, innovating a smart, modern immigration admissions system gives us the chance to choose the next waves of newcomers who enter the U.S. to build their future with us.

While Congress should pass President Biden's important citizenship bill, our immigration problems will linger until we all begin to imagine our future rather than content ourselves with fixing problems currently before us.

Justin Gest is an associate professor at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government and a contributor to the new book Immigration Matters.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.