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Immigration Reform Faces Sizeable Challenges

"Reform must create a system for determining future flows of both high-tech and low-wage workers," says professor Noah Pickus

A bipartisan group of eight senators on Monday proposed sweeping changes to the nation’s immigration laws, saying the time has come to fix "our broken immigration system."

Two Duke professors who study immigration applauded the move, but noted that sizeable challenges lie ahead.

Noah Pickus, director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics and associate research professor of public policy, says legislation must address issues such as "whether and how legalizing immigrants who have to 'go to the back of the line' can actually become citizens."

Also, "reform must create a system for determining future flows of both high-tech and low-wage workers that does not rely on failed guest worker or 'temporary' visa programs," Pickus said.

In addition, reform "must establish a coherent and funded strategy for integrating and assimilating" immigrants into American society, including how to legalize their status and apply for citizenship, said Pickus, who co-directed a 2009 Brookings-Duke Immigration Roundtable, "Breaking the Immigration Stalemate."

"Underlying all of these specific issues is the question of trust -- can the administration and Congress convince the American people that they are capable of implementing an enormously complicated set of reforms in ways that serve immigrants and the nation, rather than specific interest groups?" he said.

Jacob Vigdor, a professor of public policy and economics, notes that immigration is not a top concern for many Americans.

"In a very real sense, the immigration problem has actually solved itself, thanks to demographics and the weak economy.

"Hispanic voters, a growing percentage of the electorate, are too important to ignore, and this issue means a lot to them. Meanwhile, opinion polls indicate that immigration has fallen off the radar screen as a concern for American voters more broadly, displaced by continuing economic worries," Vigdor said.

Vigdor, who specializes in immigration and migration, and racial and ethnic segregation, said he finds it ironic that this issue is being addressed now.

"Immigration is actually less problematic now than it has been for decades," he said. "The flow of immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border has slowed to a trickle. Demographic change in Mexico, where the birth rate has declined precipitously over the past generation, forecasts that we will never again witness migration waves as intense as the past quarter-century."

He adds, though, that to do reform the right way, "Congress will have to stop obsessing about last decade's problem -- the porous Mexican border -- and focus on the future, when the United States will be competing with other developed countries to attract the most talented, entrepreneurial workers."