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.