The Who's Who of Immigration Policy Making

By David North on September 21, 2009

Immigration policy is usually made by politicians, and not presidential ones.

As the Obama Administration shows signs of tackling the subject, it might be helpful to sketch the players who have strongly influenced the immigration policy scene in recent years, which I do in this the first of several blogs on the subject.

Unlike foreign policy and macro-economic policy, in which presidents and cabinet members dominate, immigration policy is usually crafted by members of the Congress, and more specifically by the members of the immigration subcommittees of both houses. Until a couple of decades ago, the executive branch made little input into immigration policy.

A good example of this reality took place around the kitchen table in a Capitol Hill town house about 24 years ago. The three players -- all of whom are still in Washington, and two in key immigration policy positions -- were then young Democratic members of the House, all interested in immigration policy, and all willing to spend time and emotional energy on putting together an immigration policy. All were batching it when Congress was in session, all were friends (two were housemates), and all had rock-solid Democratic seats so they had little need to travel home every weekend. (The kitchen table was in one of the trio's houses, but I forget which one.)

The three were: Congressman Howard Berman of Los Angeles, who spoke for the farm workers, Congressman Leon Panetta who had a rural district in central California and who represented grower interests, and the third was Congressman Charles Schumer of Brooklyn, who cast himself as the deal-maker. He knew that if the Democratic members could not agree on how to deal with farmworkers in the pending immigration reform bill, nothing would pass.

You will notice that the restrictionists did not have a seat at that table; nor did the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) have a chance to comment. The trio's complex formula for legalizing many of the farmworkers was inserted whole into the pending Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, without the usual expert testimony or committee mark-up.

The only reason that Howard Berman is not now chair of the House immigration subcommittee -- he is by far the senior member -- is that he is chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and multiple chairmanships are discouraged. Panetta is back in Washington, with his hands full of CIA matters. Schumer has moved from the House to the Senate where he is -- surprise -- chair of the Senate immigration subcommittee, a position long held by the late Senator Ted Kennedy.

Schumer and Berman are sure to play major roles in the unfolding immigration policy debate, though the farm worker program they created subsequently appeared to have many flaws.

That program was for the legalization of formerly illegal farm workers, or Special Agriculture Workers (SAWs); the requirements created by the trio were loosely drawn, and many of the 1.1 million SAWs who got legal status were probably ineligible for the program, including many of the thousands that secured this status while filing in New York City.

Another major problem in the program (which I reviewed for the Ford Foundation) was that INS was something less than enthusiastic about the laborious task of sorting out the invalid applicants from the valid ones. As I reported at the time, INS took $20 million that it raised from the SAW applications and, instead of using it on fraud detection, spent the money on a new set of computers for its offices.

Next: thumbnail sketches of the key immigration players in today's House of Representatives.

If you enjoyed this blog, check out others in this series by David North: