How Will Changing Popular Opinion Impact Immigration Policy?

Immigration reform has been a hot-button political issue in 2013, and while it does not appear likely that legislation will pass this year, the fact that there has even been widespread debate on the subject represents progress. In the last twenty years, support for pro-immigrant policies has dramatically grown.

In 1994, California passed a law that was widely perceived to be the harshest anti-immigrant law in the U.S. The law, which was overturned by the federal courts, would have barred the children of immigrants from attending public schools. Supporters of the law failed to anticipate the consequence of its passage: it encouraged immigrants to organize, to vote, and to lobby for immigrants’ rights. With elected officials who championed the interests of immigrants, the political climate in California changed dramatically.

Now, more Californians than ever think immigrants have a beneficial impact on the state. And it’s not just in California where attitudes are changing. Dayton, Ohio, is one of several Midwest cities trying to attract immigrants in the hopes of reversing a drop in population and reviving a faltering economy.

Dayton doesn’t just welcome legal immigrants—no effort is made to interfere with illegal immigrants as long as they are law abiding. It’s too early to evaluate the success of the Dayton program, but so far results are encouraging. Houses have been refurbished and new restaurants and shops have opened. There is a new Turkish community center, and a group from Africa is working to start a coffee roasting company. Hardly surprising, since a major study published in September finds that immigrants have an economically positive effect on the areas where they settle.

Americans in general seem to be realizing the benefits that immigration can provide. A CBS news survey conducted in October found that three-quarters of those surveyed favored “a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the U.S. if they met certain requirements including a waiting period, paying fines and back taxes, passing criminal background checks, and learning English.”

Meanwhile, immigration to the U.S. continues to happen in large numbers. Last year there were 447,000 legal immigrants, 309,000 of whom were Asians. All these new wage earners create a bigger tax base from which to collect social security and a bigger pool of workers to fuel the economy. California may be a harbinger for the kinds of changes that are likely all over the country. As immigrants find ways to make their voices heard, there will be more opportunities for people eager to immigrate and more possibilities for people in the U.S. illegally to gain citizenship. And that may benefit the country as a whole: just ask the people of Dayton.

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