You have to look hard for them, but three bits of good news on the immigration front have emerged in the last week or so. One major one, and a couple of more obscure items.
These are, indeed, grim times for all of us, but it is useful to point out that a few things are moving in the right direction. The major development is a negative, almost invisible one: There were no immigration policy setbacks in the stimulus bill.
As an old Washington hand, I know that one of the things that the open-borders lobbyists do all too well is to insert immigration changes into the secret negotiations that lead up to the writing of an urgent appropriations package. Such as the decision in 2019 to let Homeland Security double the number of H-2B (non-skilled, non-ag foreign) workers, but in such a way that the Congress did not order the new ceiling, it permitted DHS to do so.
I was worried that specific proposals pending in the House might make it into the compromise package. One was the idea that all H-1B visas would be extended automatically for one year. Another was that the 10,000 cap on EB-5 (immigrant investor) visas apply only to the investor, not to the investor and his or her spouse and children, as it does now. (This notion would just about triple the number of immigrants admitted in this category, while not increasing the amounts being invested.)
There is a modest, by the trillion-dollar standard, allocation of $350 million for migration and refugee assistance; it would give the administration the opportunity to spend this money on virus-related issues, but does not mandate it. Further, there do not seem to be any provisions for increasing the number of refugee admissions.
One of the reasons for good news generally — and this is my speculation — is that the compromise for the big stimulus package was worked out between the Senate Republicans and the Senate Democrats rather than between the Senate and the House. In the latter case, the speaker and some of her open-borders allies would have had a stronger voice.
Or it may have been dumb luck. As one who once worked in the unemployment insurance business for a Democratic state administration, I was astounded that the Senate Republicans accepted (grudgingly) a provision that, albeit briefly, gives some unemployed workers more in benefits than they had received while working. Of course these benefits should be increased, but to that extent? Amazing.
And similar startling moves might have been included in the migration field, but were not. Whew!
Meanwhile, on the administrative rather than the legislative front, two small silver linings, maybe silver-plated linings, have popped up. One relates to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the other to Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Frequently, when there are enough deportees from a single country bunched in a single place in the United States ICE charters a plane to send the aliens home, notably to Central America from Texas, and maybe from California as well. When there are smaller numbers, ICE books seats on scheduled flights of the major airlines.
Now if you book a charter flight for deportees, what do you do with the empty seats when the plane returns to the States? Usually — and here my data basis is slim — I suspect nothing. So these seats are a wasted resource, but that, to some extent, is changing.
ICE has recently announced that some of these seats are being used to bring stranded Americans back from Central America; these are people who cannot easily return because of cutbacks in airline schedules.
That's both an appropriate use of these seats and a temporary one. Once the airlines resume flights and the virus crisis appears less threatening, use of that resource will no longer be needed.
But the deportee flights will continue long into the future, and a nimble Department of Homeland Security could use those empty seats — and the presumably empty luggage and cargo space — in ways that could help the economies of the Northern Triangle nations, and thus reduce pressures to come to the United States illegally.
A reasonably uncomplicated use of the unused space on the returning charters could be the provision of low-cost or no-cost transport of Central American craft goods, such as woven and pottery products, thus bringing more volume and perhaps higher prices to the country people who make them. Shipping some perishables, again at cut rates, might be possible in the holds of these planes, presuming that temperature controls were in place.
Not only should such arrangements be made, they should be publicized in Central America.
If a way could be found to use the empty seats to bring authorized foreign workers (both H-2As and H-2Bs) to this country so that it would benefit the workers and their-stay-at-home families, this would make these programs more beneficial to the homeland economies. Maybe the money spent on the travel, to be shouldered by the employers, could be used to fund some nation-building in the Northern Triangle.
Some of these suggestions might involve changing the text of the contracts with the charters.
Yet another hidden resource has been produced by the sharp reduction of international travel and that is the time and energy of the inspectors at the air and land ports of entry. While dealing with empty plane seats involves negotiations among ICE, the charter airlines, and other players, the extra person-power created by the reduced traffic at the ports is totally within governmental control.
One obvious move would be to simply cut the budgets for inspections, reduce the hours for many of the inspectors (saving on overtime), and lay off others. Both the agents' union and the Customs and Border Protection agency would object to such an approach, but the mere suggestion might ease the way to other approaches.
The least complex of these adjustments, perhaps already in play, would be the encouragement of staff to use vacation days voluntarily at a time convenient to the government, and the use of this time for needed staff training.
Deploying the inspectors at land ports to help the Border Patrol staff their operations would be another possibility. Though the inspectors and Border Patrol agents cannot replace each other directly, inspectors could be used to ride alongside agents on patrol and could help staff detention centers, for example.
But what do you do with the down time for the inspectors at the airports? There is no Border Patrol on Long Island that can absorb that otherwise idle inspector at Idlewild (aka: JFK), for example.
A number of years ago, when immigration-management functions were united in the old Immigration and Naturalization Service, there was a process called "remoting" in which not fully utilized inspectors, notably in the middle of the night, were given adjudication chores that did not involve interviews. In those days, the inspectors reported to the assistant commissioner/inspections, who reported to the associate INS commissioner/examinations — the adjudicators reported, through an assistant commissioner/adjudications to the same associate commissioner.
Currently inspectors are in CBP and adjudicators are in USCIS, making such a work transfer more difficult, if not impossible.
Maybe some of the otherwise under-utilized airport inspectors could be assigned to help ICE with its functions. Having some people in DHS working in different parts of the agency — if only temporarily — would be a useful part of their careers, opening their eyes to other parts of migration management, and would help the broader goal of better migration enforcement.
But there has to be creative leadership to cause any of these wasted resources to be used in these manners. It is easier to let staff time (and airplane seats) simply go to waste.