Getting Serious about Sen. Menendez and a System for Green Cards

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on June 24, 2011

Sen. Robert Menendez says the comprehensive immigration reform bill (S.1258) he and some Democratic colleagues introduced this week offers "a complete solution - a real solution - to end undocumented immigration and restore the rule of law." He adds that it "signals to the American people that we are serious about fixing our broken immigration system."

In 2007, Menendez resisted efforts to forge a legislative compromise that would have featured something he wanted – a sweeping legalization of illegal immigrants – and something he didn't want – a point system for green cards that would have provided higher priority for skills and education and lower priority for the family connections that dominate the current system.

"The Senators' Bargain", last year's HBO documentary on the failed 2007 Senate effort to pass the compromise, includes a candid moment in which Menendez upbraids allies who had reluctantly agreed to support the compromise.

Said Menendez: "As a Latino – there's no way when 50 percent of the people in this hemisphere live below the poverty level , that future opportunities for immigration to the United States is going to come from that community because they're not going to qualify under the 100 points system. That means that we have the essence of the ethnic origins act."

The senator's reference was to the infamous 1924 legislation that discriminated against immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and favored "old stock" immigrants from Northern and Western Europe. That system was abolished in landmark 1965 legislation whose legacy is the current system, which supporters praise as promoting family unification and critics decry as promoting nepotism.

It would certainly be in the national interest to have a well-informed debate on this issue. To what extent should immigration policy be designed to ease the suffering of impoverished people in Latin America and elsewhere? To what extent should it be designed to select those who are most likely to contribute to national prosperity and least likely to depend on the social safety net?

Should immigration be designed principally to advance the national interest? If so, how do we balance the economic boost provided by the high-skilled with the less quantifiable benefits and costs of reassembling extended families regardless of their economic and educational circumstances?