The Senate this week begins debate on a compromise agreement on comprehensive immigration reform forged last week by a bipartisan group of senators. The proposed legislation is far from perfect and must be amended in the coming days to reflect the policies necessary to reform our failed immigration system, yet it is an important step in moving the debate forward for completion by the end of the 110th Congress.
The bill succeeds in crafting a generous legalization program that would allow the 12 million undocumented immigrants who have been in the country since January 1, 2007 to legalize their status and apply for permanent legal resident status over an eight- to 13-year period. In addition to completing an application, fingerprinting, and passing a background check, applicants must complete the more onerous requirements of paying a $5,000 fee and filing the application for adjustment in the country of origin (commonly referred to as the “touch-back” provision) before qualifying for a permanent “Z” non-immigrant visa, which would allow them to wait in the back of the line for permanent legal resident status.
Related to the legalization program are border security provisions that would serve as triggers for implementation of the Z visa program and the so-called “Y” visa program for temporary workers. These security provisions include: hiring 18,000 new border patrol agents; putting in place 70 ground-based radar camera towers along the southern border; deploying unmanned aerial vehicles; and providing resources to receive and process applications for Z visas.
These border security provisions are important steps toward needed security, but the recent history of implementation of border security measures points to the potential for significant delays in the certification necessary for the implementation of the Z and Y visa programs. Recent history also teaches us that border enforcement efforts only have a chance at success if pressure is taken off the undocumented flow across our borders through new well-regulated migration paths.
Overall, the border enforcement provisions in the bipartisan House STRIVE Act are preferable to those included in the legislation under debate today. The reason: they strike the correct balance in recognizing that border enforcement and a new regulated immigration system designed to address the reality of international labor markets must go hand in hand to fix the flaws in our current system.
To address future labor needs, the compromise crafted to create the new Y visa for temporary non-seasonal and seasonal workers allows 400,000 temporary workers annually to remain in the country for up to six years during an eight-year period—with one year spent out of the country between each two-year visa stay—and requires employers to pay “prevailing competitive wages” to Y visa holders. The compromise also provides avenues for family members to join Y visa holders during their stay in the United States, but fails utterly to provide a legal avenue for Y visa holders to earn permanent legal resident status if they so choose.
The absence of such an option raises serious concerns that the program will create a permanent underclass of workers with limited rights, and threatens to create conditions for a new wave of illegal immigration as these Y visa holders face the choice of returning home at the end of their temporary stay or taking a chance by joining the underground economy.
Finally, the compromise creates a significant shift in the structure of U.S. immigration law—away from a policy based on the value of family reunification, which has been established in the law since 1965, to one purported to serve our nation’s economic interests. The new “merit-based” point system put forward in the compromise would place the greatest value on job skills and education in rewarding green cards while eliminating the ability of U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents to bring their adult children and siblings into the country.
The proposed legislation also places arbitrary caps on the ability of U.S. citizens and green card holders to bring in their parents, though it would continue to allow U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents to bring in their minor children and spouses. In addition, the compromise proposes to eliminate the existing backlog in family-based visa categories over an eight-year period.
While a merit-based visa system that increases U.S. competitiveness in the global economy is important, the proposed structure in the compromise agreement fails to meet pressing economic needs on several important counts. First, dismantling the family-based system ignores the important contributions to the economy that immigrants have made through family immigration. Second, fostering family separation would unduly encourage remittances back to countries of origin rather than investing those resources into the U.S. economy.
Third, the point-system structure in the compromise bill provides no added value or weight to applicants with degrees from U.S. universities or those in specialized fields where there are legitimate workforce shortages. Fourth, by not increasing the overall number of available visas and placing the family-based backlog numbers into the overall number of available visas, the compromise significantly limits the availability of permanent visas to address pressing economic needs. Finally, the merit-based system significantly disadvantages low-skilled workers who also serve vital economic needs.
An amendment process that addresses these points as well as important due process concerns, privacy issues related to the employment verification system, and labor market tests to ensure access to jobs for low-skilled native-born workers will be critical to ensuring that comprehensive immigration reform remains on track for the 110th Congress. With these changes to the compromise agreement Congress would move our country away from the ineffective and costly enforcement-only approach to immigration that has proven an exercise in futility in fixing our broken immigration system.
A comprehensive approach to immigration could more intelligently provide the skilled and unskilled labor that our country needs through legal means, reunite families, enable those living and working within the United States to be better integrated into society, and allow the Department of Homeland Security to focus its resources on actual security threats at U.S. borders and other ports of entry.
Comprehensive immigration policies can and should address all of the issues by:
- Curtailing opportunities to work illegally. Cutting down on the hiring of undocumented workers and expanding opportunities to work legally. By increasingly monitoring hiring practices, we can cut down on the hiring of undocumented workers.
- Bringing the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States out of the shadows. Providing a legal means for entry—including ultimate access to a path to earned legalization—for individuals who are willing to apply for multi-year temporary status, maintain a job, pay taxes, obey the law, learn English, and clear criminal and terrorism background checks. This aligns with our country’s tradition of valuing hard work and will allow law enforcement to conduct background checks and focus its efforts on apprehending actual terrorists and criminals rather than criminalizing all immigrants.
- Protecting all workers in the United States. Approximately 7.2 million undocumented immigrants currently work in the United States. We should ensure that all workers are paid a fair wage and can protect their rights, create a worker visa program to meaningfully enforce labor laws, and bring an end to the chaotic flow of immigrants across the border that often results in unnecessary deaths.
A majority of the country, including President Bush, support comprehensive immigration policies like these. A January 2007 Pew Research Center poll found that 59 percent of Americans overall—and the majority of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans—support policies that give immigrants who have been in the United States for several years the opportunity to gain legal working status and, eventually, citizenship. Now it’s time for Congress to act.
Cassandra Butts is the Center’s Vice President for Domestic Policy. To speak with her please contact:
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