US candidacy perspectives: The issue of immigration

The approaches made by candidates to immigration will perhaps be the most telling when regarding their position towards Latin America, understanding them is key to determine the nature of their foreign policy in the region.

As the closest point of interaction between the US and Latin America, the issue of immigration is, and will remain in the nearest future, the most visible manifestation of the condition of US foreign policy towards all countries in the region. Taking into account shifting immigration data, indicating a slow-down in migrant influx in the US from Mexico, but a significant increase in immigration from countries in the “northern triangle” of central America (namely Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), as well as mounting pressure coming from recent waves of middle eastern migratory movements (particularly from Syria), the coming US government will have to adapt its immigration system to respond to the needs of a new migratory landscape. The issue will be closely inspected in the course of the current candidates’ campaigns, and will prove determinant in turning the tide of public opinion in their favor.

Polls show Hillary Clinton as the leading option for the Democrats approaching the primaries, leading on the vast majority of nationwide polls. Clinton has expressed publicly, and on many occasions, a liberal view on immigration, arguing in favor of a radical immigration reform that results in greater institutional acceptance for immigrants. Clinton’s rationale is more practical than ideological however. On her 2014 book Hard Choices, she emphatically stated the importance of immigration in maintaining a productive demographic structure, with sufficient young population to support a growing economy, warning against the risks of falling into demographic crises like those striking Russia and Japan. Despite her vows to fight for a more accessible route to citizenship for immigrants, Clinton has, during her time in the senate, supported acts that combat illegal immigration through means of deportation and border detainment, like the Illegal Immigration Reform and the Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.

The other optioned candidate for the Democrat primaries is US Senator for Vermont, Bernie Sanders, who has garners around 30% of the votes in most nationwide polls. On a similar vein to Clinton, Sanders has been an outspoken advocate for a comprehensive immigration reform that simplifies the path to citizenship for immigrants, and, as well as Clinton, intends to extend support on the DACA and DAPA programs which grant work permits and exemptions from deportation to undocumented immigrants which were either children at the time of their arrival, or have parented legal US citizens during their time as undocumented residents. Sanders, however, shows himself as less pragmatic when regarding immigration, and primes the preservation of families as the focus of his comprehensive immigration policy. These two positions round up the democratic perspective on immigration, at least up to the primaries taking place in the first half of 2015.

The race for candidacy on behalf of the Republican Party is not as clear cut. Business magnate Donald Trump leads the majority of the nationwide polls conducted, and has been vocal on the issue of immigration, polarizing public opinion. Trump’s assessment on immigration reform is that it must prime the interests of the United States and its legal citizens, and his plan for reform would put in place a variety of mechanisms that would deter both legal, and illegal immigration. Trump has antagonized Mexico, its people and its government by claiming that they have full responsibility on any and all border control crises, and as such, must be made to pay for a wall along their northern border. Trump also openly appoints recent surges in crime and violence on immigrants entering the country from the south, and against it, proposes a nationwide plan to immediately deport illegal immigrants as well as immigrants convicted of felonies and those attempting to cross the border irregularly.

Neurosurgeon and presidential candidate Ben Carson, who follows Trump in most polls, converges with the president of the Trump Organization in one aspect regarding immigration, which seems to overarch all Republican candidates: Jobs must be protected and kept for unemployed United States citizens. In such pursuit, Carson suggests an immigration reform in which work permits and employment under work Visas can only be acquired by immigrants if there is a “lack of interest” from US citizens in occupying that position. Along those same lines, Trump outlines a plan requiring employers to go through the “local pool of unemployed” before hiring a legal immigrant on a work Visa, showing the Republican concern with legal immigration.

The 2016 elections will, most likely, prove a turning point for Latin American immigrants in the United States, both legal and illegal. With the candidates for the Democratic Party overwhelmingly supporting a more liberal approach to the question, extending efforts to include immigrants through legal ways beyond what the Obama administration has been able to do. The Republican side of the aisle, however, will completely change the outlook for legal and illegal immigrants in the opposite way, making more difficult their integration to both society and the workforce. Plans and projects go far beyond what has been explained here, and campaigns running up to the primaries work very differently to campaigns running up to the actual presidency, and even more so to the presidential term itself, so its fair to say that despite a vocal first year for aspiring candidates, there is still much to be defined.


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