The compromise measure on immigration the Senate is likely to consider this week is almost miraculously constructive, considering the differences between the two major parties and polarized opinions among Americans on an issue where emotions run high.
It’s far from perfect and is likely to have unintended consequences that will have to be dealt with later. But it’s a solid start.
Before evaluating the themes and details of the compromise cobbled together last week by negotiators in the U.S. Senate, it is important to sketch in a little bit of background. While most authorities estimate there are about 12 million foreign-born workers in the United States without proper government documentation, unemployment is at historically low levels. This indicates that while illegal workers probably are putting downward pressure on wages, they are not “stealing” jobs from native-born workers. The U.S. economy has shown that it can absorb those workers, and in fact, they may well be important if not essential to continued American prosperity.
The major problem is that immigration quotas are unrealistically low, given the current condition of the U.S. economy. One solution would be to abandon immigration quotas and let the marketplace, a more humane and flexible mechanism than blunt decrees from Washington, decide how many foreign workers the U.S. economy “needs,” with adequate border checks for criminals and those with contagious diseases.
That approach, however, is politically unlikely, and would offer little help with the delicate problem of what to do about the 12 million people already here illegally. Trying to round people up and deport them would be enormously disruptive. They did come here outside the law, but what these immigrants have done is not defined as a criminal act but as a civil infraction. It may be blatant demagoguery to proclaim that any path toward citizenship or regularized legal status is “amnesty” and therefore unthinkable, but there should be some price to pay.
Given that volatile background, the agreement between Democrats (Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy was the frontline negotiator) and Republicans (unquestionably conservative Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl took the lead) is an uneasy compromise on dealing with those already here. There will be a legalization procedure, but it will be expensive, lengthy and bureaucratic.
The regularization procedures wouldn’t start until 18,000 more Border Patrol agents are hired, hundreds of miles of a fence are built, and an electronic system for employers to check legal status, with enhanced penalties for employers who hire illegals, is put in place. Future legal admissions would be more “meritbased” than family-based, as is the case now, with a point system that incorporates education, special skills, relatives already here, and knowledge of English.
Current illegal residents would be able to apply for a special visa, pay a $5,000 fine and $1,500 processing fee, and begin to move toward citizenship in eight years provided they have no criminal record. A temporaryworker program would allow another 400,000 foreign workers to come and work for two years, then return home for a year, then return to the U.S. for another two. The H-1B visa program for workers with special skills needed by U.S. companies — largely high-tech — would be expanded.
Some of these provisions could be changed on the Senate floor this week, and there’s no telling what the House will do when it considers its version in July. Almost all aspects of the ungainly compromise are opposed by somebody — unions fear the guest-worker program will depress wages and conservatives see the path toward citizenship as amnesty. Implementing the bill would require a much larger and more expensive bureaucracy, and there is no guarantee it would be efficient or humane. The two-years-in-one-year-out guest worker program could be unworkable, leading to widespread skirting of the law.
But this is a political compromise within a polarized Congress, and such compromises are never ideal. Those who oppose this approach or something like it are in practice choosing to accept the present situation. That means pretending to have workable laws while winking at those who break them, creating an evergrowing population of people whose status is both dicey and vulnerable and widely resented.