Chicago Tribune, February 8, 2013
Almost everyone agrees that something has to be done to resolve America's illegal immigration crisis. But will any of the reform plans that include a "pathway to citizenship" for illegal immigrants solve the problem? I voted for President Barack Obama twice and I support the DREAM Act. But as a former foreign service officer who has issued thousands of visas to immigrants who played by the rules, I believe there are several things Americans need to know before they decide where they stand on immigration reform.
It's not just 11 million people. A substantial percentage of illegal immigrants are here alone, and once they get green cards, they will be able to petition for their wives and children to join them in the U.S. And if they become U.S. citizens, they will also be able to petition for their siblings and parents. Those migrants, in turn, can petition for their relatives and so on. Not all of the immigration preference categories are immediate, but within 10 to 15 years, legalizing 11 million migrants could result in possibly 30 million new arrivals.
Shadowy people aren't going to "come out of the shadows." One of the primary justifications for the so-called path to citizenship is that it's unwise for us to have people living here who might want to do us harm and not know who they are. But the notion that criminals or terrorists will come forward and submit to a series of government background checks is fanciful.
Jobs Americans won't do? Proponents of an amnesty for illegal immigrants often claim illegal immigrants do tough, low-paying jobs that Americans and legal immigrants won't do. This notion is flawed now but will be demonstrably false after an amnesty. Illegal immigrants are currently limited to working for employers who pay in cash and don't ask questions, but with an amnesty, they'll be competing for jobs in the mainstream labor market with less educated Americans, who are already struggling with wage stagnation and a tight labor market.
Affirmative action. Once immigrants from Latin America and Africa have legal status, they'll benefit from affirmative action programs. A 2009 Pew Research poll revealed that just 22 percent of white Americans support giving preferential treatment to minorities to redress discrimination. And I suspect that a huge majority of Americans would oppose allowing preferences in employment or college admission for illegal immigrants.
We already have guest worker programs that don't work. The Senate plan calls for more guest workers with the hollow promise that employers will be able to petition for them only if they can demonstrate that Americans are "unavailable or unwilling" to fill the positions. We already have the H-2A visa, a numerically unlimited guest worker program for farm workers, the H-2B visa for unskilled workers, the H-1B visa for high-skilled workers and a host of other visa opportunities for investors, entrepreneurs and even religious workers. Employers know how to game the system to create a phony case that American workers are unavailable. The new system will only intensify the "in-sourcing" trend where U.S. employers import cheaper guest workers for jobs they can't outsource.
Strain on social services. Legalizing millions of mostly poor people, many of whom have no job security or health insurance, will put a strain on already strapped social services agencies. A study by the Center for Immigration Studies estimated that 57 percent of immigrant households (legal and illegal) used at least one welfare program in 2009. Illegal immigrants aren't eligible for most benefits, but once this group has legal status, they'll be eligible for the full range of benefits.
A surge of document and identity fraud. Amnesty applicants will have to jump through a number of bureaucratic hoops to secure green cards, and those who don't qualify will scramble to create a paper trail to meet the requirements.
Half the problem won't be addressed. Up to half of all illegal immigrants in the U.S. are visa overstays. Most abuse tourist visas, but the Senate plan won't fix the overstay problem. The framework calls for an entry-exit system, but it doesn't specify how overstays will be located and removed. In 2012, about 75 percent of all tourist visa applicants were approved, and in Mexico the figure was 90 percent. Even if the border is secured, rampant abuse of temporary visas will continue as long as lax visa issuance is the norm.
Amnesty beneficiaries won't be "joining the back of the line." The plan refers to a "line" even though no such thing exists. In most cases, migrants qualify to live here based on a family relationship or a job. The Senate plan speciously claims that illegal immigrants won't receive their green cards until "every individual who is already waiting in line for a green card ... has received their green card."
When an American citizen files a petition for a foreign sibling to join him in the U.S., for example, the average wait time for that migrant to get a green card is 12 to 14 years. No serious plan is going to ask amnesty beneficiaries to wait a decade or longer to get a green card.
The plan will vindicate those who broke the law. I had the pleasure of issuing immigrant visas to applicants who jumped through all of the hoops and waited years in their home countries to come to the U.S. legally. Any plan that provides the same prize to those who flouted the law is a mistake. The message to the hundreds of millions around the world who aspire to live in the U.S. will be clear: Those who broke the law still got green cards. Their decision to come illegally will be perceived as a smart one in their home countries, which will only encourage more illegal immigration.