The practical and ethical challenges posed by unauthorized immigration in the United States have a long history. In this article, which serves as the basis of discussion in this issue's Up for Debate section, Daniel Tichenor demonstrates how the immigration debate defies the usual liberal/conservative divide of U.S. politics and illustrates the different ways that distinct ideological camps define the problem of illegal immigration. He then shows how American immigration reform, because of the contentious politics it inspires, has been propelled over time by compromises among strange bedfellows. The legislative result for almost a century has been a series of Faustian bargains over porous borders and access to cheap, low-skilled labor. Equally important, the capacity and will of the national state to enforce its immigration laws have long been beleaguered by a tradition of inadequate resources, erratic leadership, and poor oversight. While the political spotlight usually trains on legislative wrangling over immigration reform and its legal outcomes, the devil often can be found in the details of enforcement. In addition to these significant historical patterns, however, are important new forces in the politics of immigration reform. These include the fresh political mobilization and growing influence of new immigrant groups as well as the shifting role of organized labor in immigration policy making.

In their generally sympathetic responses to Tichenor, economist Barry Chiswick stresses the costs of the modern-day welfare state as an additional consideration affecting political discussion in recent years, Nancy Foner expands the political dimension to encompass the diversity of state and local polities, while David Gutiérrez suggests that older, static ideas of “social membership” are being upended by the presence and uncowed activism of “noncitizens” in an era of global economic realignment.

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