Recession in the United States is leading to some surprising trends, according to the Migration Policy Institute in its year-end roundup for 2011. Many immigrants, discouraged by the grim job picture here, are making the difficult choice to return to their countries, while some would-be migrants are deciding to stay home rather than try their luck abroad. The effect on the flow from Mexico is particularly marked: the number of Mexicans emigrating northward is roughly the same as the number returning home. In other words, net migration from Mexico to the United States is now near zero.
Other trends are perhaps more predictable. Economic distress in the United States – and also in Europe – is making immigrants the target of restrictive legislation and public backlash. Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, signed into law in 2010, was followed in 2011 by similar legislation in Alabama. Both laws contain an array of punitive anti-immigrant provisions and are now under challenge in the courts.
On the other hand, a few states such as California and Maryland have adopted laws more friendly to immigrants. The result is a patchwork quilt of differing state laws and programs. The limits of the states’ role in immigration policy will eventually be decided by the US Supreme Court.
The US approach to immigration continues to revolve around enforcement – border control, detention, and deportation – a shift that began after 9/11. Immigration reforms remain stalled. “The Obama administration, which came to office pledging to undertake a rewrite of the nation’s antiquated immigration laws, instead set a record in 2011 for deporting more noncitizens than any prior administration,” notes the Migration Policy Institute. Many Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail have called for even more drastic measures.
In August 2011, the administration announced that it would undertake a case-by-case review of deportations, allowing some undocumented immigrants without criminal records to stay. It is too soon to know what the impact of the announced policy shift will be.
Meanwhile, the conditions under which unauthorized immigrants are detained have been criticized as both inhumane and costly in the United States and several other countries. In 2009 the Obama administration announced an intention to reform the detention system to move away from prisonlike conditions and toward facilities more appropriate for civil detention. But a report in October 2011 by Human Rights First found that “the overwhelming majority of detained asylum seekers and other civil immigration law detainees are still held in jails or jail-like facilities — almost 400,000 detainees each year, at a cost of over $2 billion.”
Language ETC doesn’t take positions on political issues, but we do care about immigrants. 2011 has been a difficult year for almost everyone. Amid these worrisome trends, our efforts to help immigrants learn English so they can improve their lives and contribute to US society are more important than ever.