Two New Immigration Bills Illustrate the Slow Growth of Migrants' Power

By David North, March 8, 2012

It's not exactly front-page news, but some powerful members of Congress are seeking special deals for two almost forgotten groups of immigrants, those from Ireland and Israel.

It sounds like the politics of New York City 50-60 years ago. You might call it quaint, like a Broadway revival of Abie's Irish Rose.

But it serves to remind us of the slow growth of the political power of newcomers, which swells decades, even generations, after the maturing of the underlying demographic and cultural trends.

A non-migratory example: Women in the United States first voted nationwide in 1920; it was 28 years before one of them, running in her own right, and not as a widow of a Senator, was elected to the U.S. Senate. That was Margaret Chase Smith (R-Me.) in 1948. She maintained that distinction during her four terms in the Senate. (She had served in the House earlier, however, first being elected as the widow of a member of that body.) Similarly, there are lots of gays in state legislatures, a few in the House of Representatives, but none, yet, in the Senate.

Looking at another group of relative political newcomers, we see the same thing with blacks. While they had become more numerous in various northern cities, and had been involved in big city politics for generations, they did not get a seat in Congress (in the post-Reconstruction era) until 1929, and did not get a second one until Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) won his first race in Harlem in 1944. The Congressional Black Caucus now has 40 members of the House of Representatives, plus non-voting delegates from Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands.

In short, it takes a long time before the fact of large numbers leads to actual political power. Hispanics are mid-way through that process at the moment, and will be a much more significant political force 20-30 years from now.

But the old identities and urges are still with our urban politicians, despite the relatively tiny inflows of people from, for instance, Ireland and Israel. In FY 2010, according to the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, there were more than a million green cards issued, with 1,610 from Ireland and 5,172 from Israel. Even combined these two flows do not equal 1 percent of the newcomers that year.

Nevertheless, two totally unnecessary, but intriguing, bills have been introduced in Congress on behalf of these small groups of migrants. Neither bill actually creates immigrant visas, but both deal in long-term, easily renewable nonimmigrant visas; and both are supposed to be helpful to the U.S. economy. The lack of a frontal assault on numerical limits for immigrants seems quite deliberate.

There are to be E-3 visas for the Irish and E-2 visas for Israelis, if the bills pass.

The older of the two bills, by a matter of months, deals with the Irish, and is modeled after an unfortunate precedent helped along by the most recent President Bush. He was pleased that the conservative government of Australia sent troops to Iraq, so with his support Congress created E-3 visas for Australians only. This program works much like the H-1B program for high-tech and professional workers, and sets a cap of 10,500 on the principals in the program. Dependents of the principals are admitted, as nonimmigrants, without limit, as this summary indicates.

The would-be Irish version of this program being promoted by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who holds the seat once held by the late Ted Kennedy, uses the same visa number (E-3) and the same partial ceiling (10,500) as the Aussie program, but it is much, much looser in its skill demands. One has to have only a high school education, or two years of experience in a particular occupation — and a job offer — to secure the new visa. Some versions of this bill, as it has been reported in the press, would allow for illegal aliens from Ireland to apply here, others would not.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Capitol Hill, the House Judiciary Committee, on March 6, approved by voice vote HR 3992, which creates the E-2 (treaty investor) visas for Israelis.

These are nonimmigrant visas, which can be renewed perpetually and allow the alien and his or her family to come to the United States as long as there is a "substantial investment", not otherwise defined, in a business located in the States. That, as we explained in our CIS Backgrounder on the immigrant-investor, or EB-5 program can be as little as $50,000.

Currently, one has to be a citizen of a country with which the United States has an investment treaty in order to qualify for these visas. Israel has no such treaty with us. The House bill skirts that issue by simply adding Israel, by law, to the list of countries with which we do have such a treaty, a bit of legislative chutzpah, if you ask me. For more, see the committee's press release.

These investment treaties routinely make concessions to the citizens of both nations, such as E-2 status for Israelis within the United States. There is no such reciprocity in the House action.

What is intriguing, and worrisome, is that both bits of proposed legislation are pushing country-specific benefits, and both are using near-perpetual nonimmigrant visas as their vehicles. Are these predictors of future legislative gimmicks? Probably.