Immigration stalemate: Will growing diversity make it worse?

As the US foreign-born population peaks to new heights, immigration reform has become a hotter issue than ever. Will the White House and Congress ever find a compromise?

Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo
President Barack Obama hosts a bilateral meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Tuesday, Jan. 6, in the White House. The president is looking to his southern neighbor for help implementing the changing policies on immigration and Cuba.

At the White House on Tuesday, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto praised US President Barack Obama's controversial executive action to temporarily defer deportation of nearly 5 million immigrants living in the United States as an "act of justice."

The series of executive actions, which the president announced in November, provides a legal reprieve to parents of US citizens and permanent residents who have lived in the country for at least five years. It also allows immigrants who arrived as children to apply for deportation postponement. About two-thirds of the plan's potential beneficiaries are from Mexico. Obama hosted Peña Nieto at the White House in a bid to strengthen relations with the Latin American nation.  

The Mexican leader's statement adds another talking point to the debate on US immigration, an issue that grows more divisive even as it becomes relevant to a growing sector of the American public. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the US foreign-born population hit a historic high of 41 million in 2012. And while 28 percent – about 11 million – of those were Mexican natives, the demographics have grown increasingly diverse: The number of migrants from China, India, and the Philippines each hovered close to 2 million, while those from Vietnam, Cuba, and South Korea tallied around 1 million apiece.

These immigrants have settled across the United States, with the majority living in California, New York, Texas, Florida, and New Jersey respectively. About 11.5 million are undocumented, according to Migration Policy Institute data.

Along growing diversity is a starker divide on the issue of immigration and how to address it, especially along party lines. A Pew Research Center study released last month found that 50 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama's executive action, narrowly surpassing the 46 percent who agree with the decision. The same study found that 82 percent of Republicans surveyed said they disagree with the president, while 71 percent of Democrats said they approve – a divide mirrored in the stalemate on immigration policy between the White House and Congress.

The Washington Post articulated the problem in a Jan. 5 editorial: “Like the Republicans, we worry that Mr. Obama’s executive order attempts to accomplish what should be done through legislation ... [But] rather than take the challenge, Republicans now appear intent on confirming their image as the party of no solution to the immigration dilemma.”

For some, the solution lies in finding a tenable middle ground. In his book “American Dreams,” to be released next week, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) outlined a series of bills aimed at addressing the issue piecemeal, arguing against the sweeping methods that the president has tried to employ. Mr. Rubio, a potential candidate in the 2016 presidential elections, himself previously tried to pass a comprehensive immigration bill in the last Congress.

He writes, "We must begin by acknowledging, considering our recent experience with massive pieces of legislation, [that] achieving comprehensive immigration reform of anything in a single bill is simply not realistic."

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