Monday, May 31, 2010

How to Reform U.S. Immigration (I)

Our immigration policy is a mess. Immigrants have zero to few rights and little influence in our political system. Policy is made and controlled by Hispanic groups and Democrats interested in enlarging the size of the Hispanic vote, by business people and others searching for cheap labor, by labor unions fearful of competition from cheap labor, by nativists fearful of a multi-racial America, by new citizens who want their relatives to join them, all purporting to act on behalf of national security or civil rights. With all these competing interests, small wonder immigration reform flows at the speed of molasses.

I have read the recommendations (pp. 83-111) offered in the Council on Foreign Relations study, U.S. Immigration Policy, from a panel chaired by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former Clinton chief of staff Mack McLarty. As usual, the study recommends comprehensive immigration reform, meaning securing the border and punishing employers who hire illegal aliens in exchange for granting “earned legalization” to the 13 million aliens living here illegally. I believe such reform tries to do too much at once, that most Republicans (though not Jeb Bush) oppose comprehensive reform, and that many Democrats who want Hispanic votes but understand voters fear cheap immigrant labor cowardly hide behind the more open Republican opposition. We tried comprehensive reform in 1986 with amnesty offered those already in the country, and it didn’t work. In the following 24 years, illegals kept pouring across an open border. This time, we need a new approach.

The country wants our border with Mexico sealed. We need a fence across the entire length of the Mexican border. We also need, as the study recommends, biometric, electronic verification of every worker’s legal status in the U.S. Employers who check electronically with the Department of Homeland Security will have immunity from prosecution, but they will have to undergo on site checks, and will face serious penalties for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants already in the country will be allowed to stay under strictly controlled conditions that allow them to work with a permit, but not to advance toward citizenship at this time. No green cards for illegals. The rule will be secure the border first, then talk about amnesty later for those inside.

Another change that should come after the border is sealed: provision for increased numbers of legal, unskilled (now called “low-skilled”) labor immigrats. The Council on Foreign Relations’ study makes a case for limiting temporary worker visas only to seasonal, mostly agricultural or tourism, employees. Anyone seeking more permanent employment and first hired by a U.S. employer should come to the country with a path to eventual citizenship, and should have a worker visa that enables him/her to move from job to job. The study points out unskilled workers won’t take jobs from Americans if workers are guaranteed adequate wages (meaning an American could be hired just as easily, if available), and if visa holders can change jobs (meaning employers can’t blackmail their workforce into working for less in the job that brought them here). Making provision for legal, unskilled labor will lessen the pressure on our border.

And why shouldn’t we welcome unskilled labor? Daniel Griswold, writing in Commentary, reminds us why immigration has been so good for our country. Immigration lowers our crime rate, increases social stability, leads to a smaller underclass, growing educational achievement, fewer drop-outs, and fewer non-immigrants living in poverty. Competition for low-skilled jobs drives Americans toward high school degrees, and immigrants, by enlarging the workforce, create openings for native born workers the next level up. With immigration up 29%, we will see an annual boost in total income of $180 billion, due to the “occupation mix effect” from increasing higher level job opportunities.

Seal the borders first. Good changes can follow. And it could happen with more Republicans in Congress.

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