THE DEBATE about immigration reform is shifting dramatically, and with it the high-stakes negotiations between Democrats and Republicans that have been taking place for several weeks now in a backroom on Capitol Hill.
The good news: The fight over legalization, or “amnesty,” is all but over. Even conservative Republicans intensely skeptical about a foreign influx are coming to understand that we as a nation can’t solve the problem of illegal immigration without doing something about the 12 million illegal immigrants already here, and together they and Democrats are crafting a measure that would allow many of those workers to earn citizenship over time.
The not-so-good news: There is very little agreement among lawmakers about the much larger, more important issue of how to structure the immigration system going forward.
The system we have obviously does not work. Every year for years now, U.S. economic needs have drawn roughly 1.5 million foreigners -- workers and their families -- into the country. But we issue only about 1 million visas. It’s as if we were making cars and had to import the steel, but our steel quotas provided only two-thirds of what we needed, and the other third had to be smuggled in for the economy to function at full capacity.
Illegal immigrants are merely a symptom. The real problem is the law that ignores the truth about our economic needs. And the critical question is whether Congress can own up to the reality of those needs and the real behavior of the foreign workers who come to meet them.
The last time legislators rewrote the immigration code, in 1986, they couldn’t bring themselves to face the facts. They legalized that era’s illegal population; they stipulated the need for a better, more realistic system and more effective enforcement. But they just couldn’t bite the political bullet -- explaining to voters why we needed to raise our quotas by 400,000 to 500,000 new visas a year.
This time around, Congress appears a little more intrepid, and many lawmakers -- Democratic and Republican -- recognize the need for additional visas. But under pressure from organized labor, some Democrats are resisting, determined to limit the increase to 200,000 new permits. And an equally unrealistic faction of Republicans, though willing to admit an extra 400,000 workers a year, is insisting that they stay only temporarily -- that no matter how well they do in this country or what kind of roots they put down here, every single one of them must go home at the end of a three-year work stint.
These Republicans’ mantra is “temporary is temporary,” and the reasoning behind it isn’t entirely wrong. Many unskilled Mexicans and Central Americans don’t want to stay permanently. They work to build a nest egg and, after a few years, return home. That’s good for the countries they go back to, and it safeguards us against the possibility of an economic downturn when we no longer need so many foreign workers.
But what about the foreigners who do so well here -- rising up the economic ladder, putting down roots and falling in love with the United States -- that they want to settle permanently and, like generations of immigrants before them, become citizens? We need a system that can accommodate them too.
One possible compromise: Allow foreign workers to enter on temporary visas, then use a point system to determine who can stay.
In fact, the Republicans in the backroom in Washington are considering a point system, but they want to apply it primarily to people waiting abroad for permanent visas. The problem with that idea? What can we determine about people waiting abroad beyond their skill and education level? Of course we need more doctors and computer scientists. But we also need farmhands and drywallers. And there’s no real way to judge from afar how well either group will do here.
Far better to admit an array of temporary workers, skilled and unskilled, and then after a few years use a point system to screen them for permanent visas: a system that rewards not just skill and education but hard work, job advancement, abiding by the law, learning English, putting down roots and investing in your community -- the things we want to see in U.S. citizens.
“Temporary is temporary” makes a good sound bite, but as a one-size-fits-all policy, it’s not a workable answer. A system like that would deprive us of our most able, enterprising newcomers. Even worse, many of them probably would not go home when their work stints were done, but instead would burrow underground, creating another generation of illegal immigrants.
At some point, Congress is going to have to face the facts. Wouldn’t it be better to do it now than wait another 10 or 20 years?