Amnesty is not the problem in the Immigration Bill

The Senate immigration reform bill contains too little reform and too little immigration to solve the problem it tries to address. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, April 22, 2013 — Under the impressive title ‘‘Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,’’ the “Gang of Eight” have produced an 844-page bill which is full of unnecessary expenses, unrealistic enforcement measures, and inadequate efforts to address the immigration issue. It does this while pandering to special interests which do not have a legitimate claim to have any say in policy this important.

A bill is not a marketing pitch, but since it has to win support, perhaps some sales strategy ought to figure into it. Certainly leading with 50 pages of the weakest and most unrealistic ideas in the bill won’t create a strong impression on potential supporters, who may not read much past those first few sections. Leading off with border enforcement is a mistake. They have no new answers, except putting drones on the border, hiring thousands of additional border patrol agents and having taxpayers buy satellite phones for businesses near the border so they can call for help when overrun with illegals. Better to accept the reality that there is not enough money, manpower or hardware to truly seal the borders and move on to something more realistic.

What becomes clear very quickly is that many of the claims made about the bill by its opponents are just false. Section 2 makes very clear that anyone previously deported will not be eligible for a resident visa, nor will anyone convicted of a felony, three or more misdemeanors, or a crime committed in a foreign country. There is also a prohibition on giving visas to known terrorists, not that we ever had a policy of doing so. And although E-Verify is in the bill, contrary to the fears of many opponents, it is not the hardcore version with a national ID card, but a softer version using existing methods of identification and no permanent database of workers, protecting the privacy rights of citizens. It even explicitly states, “Nothing in this section may be construed to directly or indirectly authorize the issuance, use, or establishment of a national identification card.”

The big worry for many is amnesty, and while the bill does technically provide for amnesty by not deporting all illegals or punishing them for their desire to seek work in the United States, all that amnesty amounts to is letting illegal residents become legal by applying for a provisional visa. It does not give them any kind of advantaged status and gives them a lower priority should they apply for citizenship than those who have previously applied through the normal naturalization process. 

While the provisional visa allows recipients to eventually apply for citizenship, it is designed to cater to the needs of workers who do not necessarily have US citizenship as their ultimate goal. Contrary to the scare stories, this  is not some sort of instant citizenship program for illegals. In fact, it is probably the best thought out and practical element of the bill, bringing illegals out of the shadows and letting them work legally, with the path to citizenship for those who wish to pursue it a lengthy process taking up to 13 years.

There are good and bad aspects to how the provisional visa system is implemented.  Provisional visas are good for six years and can be renewed, so long as the worker is not unemployed for any period longer than 60 days, pays his taxes and maintains an income higher than the federal poverty level. Enrollment as a student in a college or technical school qualifies as employment. The fee for a provisional visa seems high for low wage workers: $1000, with $500 paid on application and $500 payable in installments.

SEE RELATED: Rubio angling for 2016 with immigration bill

If you remain here under a provisional visa for 10 years, you can apply for permanent resident status. Once you have been a permanent resident for three years, you can apply for citizenship. Under the DREAM Act portion of the bill, people brought here as children can become citizens somewhat more quickly if they attend college or serve in the military.

Studies show that most illegal immigrants stay in the US for less than eight years, returning to their home country with their earnings, while only about 20 percent are likely to go on to seek citizenship. So unlike the Reagan-era amnesty which offered limited alternatives to citizenship, this bill offers plenty of opportunity to not become a citizen.

The big problem with the bill is not amnesty or that it gives illegals a chance to become legal. The fatal flaw is that the bill preserves many vestiges of the quota system which was instituted in the early 1900s. This system does not adequately address the nation’s real labor needs or deal responsibly with future immigration demand, so after an initial period we will find ourselves back in the destructive pattern of forcing illegals underground because there are not enough visas to bring them into the country legally.

The first quota in the bill applies to migrant farm workers, with a limit of 112,333 visas for temporary agricultural workers. That’s ridiculous. We probably have close to 2 million migrant farm workers in the United States  at any given time. Just for the Spring season it’s estimated 200,000 came to the Rio Grande Valley here in Texas alone. A guest worker program will not work if it doesn’t have enough visas to make it worthwhile for workers to enter legally instead of illegally. With such a small number of visas, illegal entry will remain the standard and the character of immigration will not change. We will continue to face all of the problems which come with driving the workforce underground.

SEE RELATED: Asking Jo Wideman: Does mass immigration help America’s economy?

To make this system more absurd, it makes employers jump through hoops to try to hire any native worker they can before they hire an immigrant. Every native born convict or slacker has to be given a chance at these jobs before the immigrants who need them. The crowning absurdity is that the bill sets a minimum wage for temporary agricultural workers substantially higher than the federal minimum wage for native workers, so high that it makes hiring migrant farm workers prohibitively expensive.

This idea of setting high minimum wages for legal immigrant workers is not limited to migrant farm workers. There is also a provision later in the bill to guarantee higher skill workers an artificially high wage, requiring them to be paid more than many native workers in the same jobs. These minimum wage provisions are clearly concessions to unions who want to make sure that immigrant labor cannot undercut their inflated wages.

There are also problems with quotas in the section on “merit based” visas for higher-skilled workers. The bill sets a limit of 120,000 per year — far below our national need for these workers. Then it imposes a farcically complex point system for ranking them, making it impossible to just hire the guy you need for the job you have. Worst of all, there’s a geographical element to the rankings, with preference given to nations which have had 50,000 or fewer immigrants to the US in the last five years. This is just a reformulation of the national quotas of the early 1900s, excluding workers from the countries which are already demonstrated to provide the workers for whom there is a demand and which are producing the kinds of workers people want to hire. Say your information services company wants to hire a well qualified database administrator from India. Sorry, too many of those. Perhaps you could use a Senegalese diesel mechanic instead.

Of course, if you’re a doctor, professor, research scientist or just about anyone with an advanced degree, you can have a visa with no questions asked. There’s even an incentive program for nurses. As has always been the case, it’s easiest to get visas for jobs which we really don’t need immigrants to fill.

Another problem in the bill is the system of excessive fees and penalties. Businesses have to pay thousands of dollars in many cases to get visas for their immigrant workers, and if they hire illegals they pay exorbitant penalties, starting at at $2500 and going as high as $25,000 for repeat offenders. The bill also places much of the cost and burden of enforcement and doing background checks directly on businesses.

There is also the inevitable problem with excessive spending and bureaucratic bloat. There’s a $50 million grant program for private and non-profit organizations which want to help immigrants with qualifying for resident status. There’s a plan to create a special 501(c)3 charity to help integrate immigrants into the country with a $10 million budget, and $100 million in grants to help them adjust to living here. Welcome to America, here’s a big wad of cash.

There’s a budget item of $1 billion for additional enforcement programs from the Department of Homeland Security and a big gift to the federal employee unions, with a guarantee of an ever expanding workforce with a minimum of 1000 new  bureaucrats hired per year indefinitely, regardless of actual need. More Obama-style job creation.

Towards the end of the 844 page monstrosity there is a proposal to create a program to study national labor needs. This is a good idea, but why do they need yet another new agency to do this when we already have the Bureau of Labor Statistics? Why did they not do some of this research from existing sources before framing this bill?

Just a minimal amount of work would have made them aware of how ridiculously inadequate the visa quotas set in this bill actually are. You cannot solve the illegal immigration problem without realistically addressing the demand for labor. If you ignore the forces which drive immigration and don’t take the natural labor market into consideration you just put off the problem and the undergound labor market will just com back and bring all the problems associated with it again.

There are some good things in this bill and there are some problems. Most people who are raising the alarm about it don’t focus on the right things.  In the end, the real problem is not amnesty or border security, it is that there is not enough reform and not enough actual immigration in this immigration reform bill.

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Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle has been writing political analysis since the 1980s for newspapers, magazines and now online journals. He is currently Execitive Director of the Center for Foreign Policy Priorities, is on the board of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, and served four years as National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus.

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