Last week brought news that there may be, finally, some cooling down of what has been one of the most inflammatory debates in American political, cultural, and economic life: the battle over immigration and what to do about the estimated 11 million people living and working in the U.S. illegally.
On January 28, a bipartisan group of eight senators introduced a framework plan, which if certain conditions are met, would grant a probationary legal status and an eventual path to full citizenship to most illegal immigrants. On the following day, the White House responded with its own blueprint for overhauling the nation's immigration system. While the two plans differ in their details and emphases, they share broad objectives that are similar enough to give many observers real hope that this may be the year the logjam breaks on comprehensive immigration reform.
For Democrats and Republicans, the motivations to move forward now on immigration have never been greater. President Obama has been roundly criticized within his own party's base for failing to deliver on promises made to act on immigration in his first term. On the other side, Republicans have been chastened by their party's dismal electoral performance with Latino voters and may be forced to either change course on immigration policy or face an uphill struggle for relevance amid America's new demographic realities.
If reform along the lines of the Senate's and White House's plans is implemented, what will it mean for employers and for daily life in the workplace?
Fortunately, most businesses already have deep experience managing diversity issues and are way ahead of the policymakers. A glance around most workplaces today will confirm the obvious: that immigration from all corners of the world has dramatically transformed the face of American business through an organic, incremental process. The interconnected nature of the globalized economy has likewise helped to calm fears, promote cultural understanding, and soften distinctions between who is "us" and who is "them."
Still, the vitriolic tone the immigration debate has so often taken is a reminder of the powerful emotions involved on all sides. Managing those emotions may prove to be more important than any single policy initiative. The immigration issue touches workers' deepest feelings about self-worth, acceptance, race, class, and fairness; it's a potent mixture employers must handle with care.
The Senate and White House plans both promise a wide range of reforms, including streamlined processes for verifications and visas to help businesses get the employees they need. As always, the devil will be in the details, but a functioning legal immigration system could potentially lead to many new opportunities for businesses to expand while allowing millions of illegal immigrants to come out of the shadows and share more fully in the prosperity their labor helps create.
Please read next week's post, in which we'll tackle how immigration reform could affect the job market for native-born U.S. citizens.
Readers: How will immigration reform affect your business?