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A Fine Start on Immigration Reform

by Edward Alden
April 19, 2013

Members of the Senate "Gang on Eight"--Dick Durbin (R-FL), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), John McCain (R-AZ), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC)--are pictured during a news briefing on Capitol Hill to discuss their proposed immigration bill (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).


The immigration bill introduced in the Senate this week – all 844 pages – is not a perfect piece of legislation. But it is the most serious effort in many years to create an immigration system that would better serve U.S. economic needs, strengthen the rule of law, and enhance security.

Immigration, I and others have argued, has long been America’s secret weapon. For generations, it brought to our shores a windfall of the world’s hardest working, brightest, and most ambitious individuals. They went to school, raised families, started companies, and in thousands of ways contributed to the creation of the most vibrant and dynamic economy in the world. But it was also a chaotic system. There was little scrutiny of those applying for visas to come to the United States. Once they arrived here, there was little effort to make sure they abided by the terms of the visa. And for those who lived near America’s borders, it was not difficult to just walk across and stay, and some 11 million people who have done so are still living in this country.

Such chaos was always a challenge, but became intolerable over the last two decades. It become intolerable for border states like California and Arizona in the 1990s, and it became intolerable for much of the rest of country following the 9/11 attacks, which exposed the weaknesses of U.S. entry controls. But in response to legitimate fears, the United States has spent much of the last decade walking away from the openness that has been such a great source of American strength. That has kept out or driven away many of the ambitious immigrants that the United States wants to attract and keep.

Congress has a chance now to recreate a vibrant immigration system, but one that operates within rather than outside the rule of law. The bill has many pieces, and we are only at the beginning of what will be a great national debate. But some of the more sensible proposals include:

New opportunities for highly-skilled and educated immigrants. U.S. economic progress depends on maintaining its leadership in innovation, yet there are surprisingly few slots available for these immigrants unless they have family ties in the United States. The bill would expand and improve the H-1B visa program for skilled workers. It would eliminate quotas for the most highly educated immigrants, and expand opportunities for others, especially in science and engineering. It would create a new visa for foreign entrepreneurs coming to the United States to start companies. And it would create 120,000 new “merit-based visas” awarded based on education and employment skills.

A more flexible immigration system in which numbers adjust depending on the strength of the economy. It is self-evident that the United States should be admitting more immigrants when the economy is strong and unemployment is low, as it was in the 1990s, than when the economy is weak and unemployment is high, as it has been in recent years. But rigid quotas and long waits for green cards have meant that immigrants tend to come when their bureaucratic number comes up, not when the economy needs them. As economist Gordon Hanson has written, the only part of the U.S. immigration system that has been responsive to market demands is the illegal part. The Senate proposal would start to change this by adjusting immigration quotas to respond more to market signals. A new program for low-skilled immigrants would fluctuate from 20,000 to 200,000 visas annually depending on labor market demand. H-1B visas could range from 110,000 to 180,000 per year. And the new merit visas could rise to as many as 250,000 annually in a strong economy.

Reasonable benchmarks for border security. For the past decade, Congress’s approach to border security has been to throw more of everything at the border (agents, technology, fencing, etc.) with little thought to whether those resources were actually doing anything to discourage illegal migration. This bill, however, sets ambitious but achievable targets for apprehending or discouraging illegal border crossers, and for preventing temporary visa entrants from overstaying their visas and remaining in the United States illegally. There are tough issues to resolve in measurement and evaluation, but the bill moves in the right direction by finally holding the administration and the Department of Homeland Security accountable for performance, not promises.

Workplace verification. The biggest failing the last time Congress did something similar (the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act) was the failure to discourage employers from hiring people not authorized to work in the United States. The new bill would make mandatory the E-Verify system that checks the identity of new employees against Social Security and immigration records. It is not a perfect system, and there will still be a cash market for labor that will elude any such controls. But the bill should make it much harder for anyone who lacks legal status in the United States to find work, greatly reducing the incentive to migrate illegally in the first place.

A sensible legalization scheme. The promise of legal status for unauthorized immigrants – an estimated 11 million currently – will be the most controversial element of the bill. But the legislation is reasonable and pragmatic. It offers a long temporary status – with the right to work, travel, and be freed from the fear of deportation – for those who come forward. It excludes only those with significant criminal records. It is open to anyone living in the United States before December 31, 2011, a more generous scheme than the 1986 bill and one that will only exclude a small number of very recent migrants. It gives new hope to those who those without criminal records who were deported but are hoping to rejoin family in the United States, allowing them to apply for legal return. And after a decade – and half that for young people and for farmworkers – they can apply for green cards and citizenship.

Unlike so many pieces of legislation in recent years, the bill is a serious, good faith effort by senior members of both parties to solve real problems and develop constructive compromises, not to score political points. Whether such an effort can survive the broader airing that will be required to pass the Senate and the House remains to be seen. But it is a fine start.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by JJ Cambell

    The majority of illegals are from Mexico. I have a great respect for their work ethic. However, look at the numbers – they make an average of $22,000 and have an average of 2-3 kids. Citizenship means an automatic eligibility for food stamps, WIC, free school lunches, subsidized housing, Medicaid, free cell phones, SSDI if their back hurts, TANF cash, SSI cash, etc….

    At tax time in April, when 53% of Americans are paying taxes, the new citizens would be getting huge bonus checks that include all the money that they paid in during the year plus EITC and Child Tax Credits.
    The 53% cannot afford more burdens to pay for. We already have 40,000,000 home grown welfare cases that we have to support.
    Lawmakers are about to give the OK to millions more.

  • Posted by P. Galley

    I was going to leave a lengthy comment but I read JJ Cambell’s comment and realized it was the same thing I was looking to write. Thank you JJ Cambell for letting me know I’m not the only one left with common sense.

  • Posted by stuartmill1701

    What a laughable perspective. When one has actually worked in the high-tech arena, it’s incredibly easy to see that Visas provide loopholes where companies can get away with hiring non-American workers, and all the ease they bring, from lower wages (yes, prevailing wage is routinely ignored) to a complete non-fear of employment related lawsuits–please recount the number of age-discrimination lawsuits, etc. brought by visa holders. The truth of the matter, obviously disregarded by the columnist, is that American software has dominated the world market specifically because of the limitations imposed upon it, and should the columnist be curious about that fact, perhaps he should ask Michigan about how lack of protectionism in manufacturing has helped the car industry?

  • Posted by SeanaW

    To assume that all 11 million illegals are going to become burdens on the state is unfair. There are many with skills and education that will finally be able to obtain good paying jobs, insurance, health care the proper way – especially the many childhood arrivals that are very grateful for the opportunity to go to school, have legal status, and contribute to the community. There will be enough of the 11 million paying taxes to cover the ones that need help and I would bet to also cover many other Americans.

    Mr. Alden, do you have any sources that could confirm or deny this?

  • Posted by Steven Kahn

    Rule of Law and Not Rule of Bureaucracy is What People Expect from Their Government. That’s Why They Elect People To Make Laws That Serve the Interests of All People and Protect Rights of The Under Priviledged.
    Immigrants Have Come Here In Hope of Better Life. Some Have Been Here for More Than 25 Years and Are Still Living At The Mercy of Bureaucrats. For Them Life Is Every Day Struggle.
    US Senate and Congress Must Not Disappoint Them. All Who Have Been Here More Than 10 Years, and Have No Serious Crimes,Must Be Given Citizenship.
    Borders Can Be Justifiably Protected From Illegal Entry Using
    Troops All the Way Along The Border.

    A Citizen For Constructive Legal System.

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