A Good Start on Immigration Reform

Today, the Senate begins debating a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The compromise bill announced last week is not perfect, but it offers a reasonable opportunity to reduce illegal immigration, secure our borders, and keep our economy growing.

The key to successful immigration reform, as I argued just last week in a new Free Trade Bulletin, is a workable temporary worker program. The compromise would allow 400,000 temporary workers to enter the country each year on “Y visas” to fill a multitude of jobs for which there simply are not enough native-born Americans available. We know from experience with the Bracero program in the 1950s that if we expand the legal opportunities for foreign-born workers to come to the United States, illegal immigration will drop.

The bill also legalizes most of the 12 million people currently in the country illegally by granting them temporary, renewable “Z visas.” Opponents will call any legalization an amnesty, but the compromise provisions would exact a $5,000 fine―not chump change for a low skilled worker―while requiring them to return to their home country before applying for permanent legal status. Permanent status would only be granted after the government clears the backlog of immigration petitions already outstanding, a process that will take about eight years. This is a far less generous legalization than what was offered in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which handed immediate green cards to about 2.7 million previously illegal immigrants.

The bill would also shift the emphasis on immigration from family relationships to a broader list of factors, including education, English proficiency, and work experience. The bill would still allow family visas for spouses and minor children, but being the parent, sibling and grown child of a naturalized U.S. citizen would not longer be sufficient qualification.

This provision is drawing flak from a number of immigration supporters, but the shift away from a family-dominated immigration system makes sense. It is easier today than it was a century ago to maintain ties to extended family because of international travel and international telecommunications. Although I believe fears of “chain migration” are over-blown, this compromise would help to alleviate some of those fears among people who would otherwise support immigration reform.

Any legalization would be put on hold until certain quantifiable “triggers” are met. The requirements include beefing up the border patrol to 18,000 agents, erecting a 370-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border, and expanding detention facilities to hold up to 27,500 illegal aliens per day.

My concern with the triggers is that they will needlessly delay the single most important remedy for illegal immigration―a temporary visa program for new workers. The problem of illegal immigration exists because our immigration system is out of step with the realities of the American labor market. As Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff testified before Congress in February, a legalization program would significantly reduce illegal traffic across the border, enhancing the ability of U.S. agents to capture people who would still be sneaking in to commit criminal or terrorist acts.

The bill also requires a nationwide employment verification program covering every U.S. worker, whether native or foreign-born. This is also troubling. An existing pilot program has exposed a disturbingly high error rate. U.S. citizens have been rejected by the system, requiring them to visit with immigration officials to prove their legal status. I doubt many native-born Americans will want to entrust their ability to earn a living to the reliability of a centrally controlled government data base.

These are kinks that can and should be worked out in the legislative process unfolding as we speak. Despite its shortcomings, the immigration reform plan unveiled last week and now before the Senate contains all the essential elements to finally address the growing problem of illegal immigration.