San Diego Union-Tribune, May 27, 2007
The joke about Congress is that there is the Stupid Party (R) and the Evil Party (D), and when lawmakers do something both stupid and evil, it's called bipartisanship.
The Senate is now debating a bipartisan immigration bill.
One wonders why we need any new immigration laws at all. The Bush administration has a track record of refusing to enforce existing law and has actually taken steps to make life easier for illegal immigrants. Why would anyone believe it when it pledges to enforce new laws?
As unnecessary as it is to have another 400-page, mind-numbingly complex law, if its provisions were sound, you might be able to make a case for it. They are not.
Supporters of the bill bristle at the word "amnesty" because illegal immigrants would have to pay fines and satisfy other requirements before they could get the "Z" visa designated for them, followed by more hurdles for those going on to get a green card, which can lead to citizenship.
But what is amnesty? President Bush defines it as "automatic citizenship," something that exists only in his imagination. In fact, in the immigration business "amnesty" means nothing more nor less than letting illegal immigrants stay legally. The 1986 amnesty had most of the same requirements as today's proposal, including fees, English and civics classes, background checks, etc.
In fact, today's Senate bill offers not just amnesty but immediate amnesty - it would accord provisional legal status to every illegal immigrant here before Jan. 1 within one business day of applying. Don't take my word for it; here's what Sen. Ted Kennedy said in announcing the amnesty deal: "There is also broad consensus that the 12 million undocumented workers who are here should be offered the chance to earn their legalization - immediately. If this agreement becomes law it will provide a historic opportunity for millions of people right away." [emphasis added]
This probationary amnesty would allow illegal immigrants to work and live here legally, and would last until the secretary of Homeland Security certified that certain enforcement benchmarks (called "triggers") had been met. If the triggers don't happen, then the "temporary" status would just continue indefinitely. There is ample precedent for this; hundreds of thousands of Central American illegal immigrants, for instance, recently received a fourth extension of the "Temporary Protected Status" granted six years ago because of natural disasters back home. Liberian illegal immigrants were granted such "temporary" status because of civil war - in 1991 - and have had it renewed ever since.
If the triggers eventually are certified, the former illegal immigrants would move on to Phase 2 of the amnesty, the Z visa, which is renewable indefinitely. The opportunities for fraud here are glaring, since the immigrant can present any number of easily falsified documents, including records from a day-labor center or an affidavit from a non-relative. This guarantees a replay of the experience with the 1986 amnesty, where hundreds of thousands of ineligible people were legalized by an overwhelmed bureaucracy facing extreme political pressure to rubber-stamp applications.
Finally, most of the hurdles in the bill that illegal immigrants would have to overcome (the bulk of the fines, for instance, as well as the sham requirement to leave the country and come back) involve getting a green card, which is Phase 3 of the amnesty, and is a prerequisite for eventual citizenship. But illegal immigrants seldom come here to become citizens; they come to work and join relatives, and Phase 1 of the amnesty (probationary status) and Phase 2 (Z visa) are perfectly adequate to meet those goals.
But you might say that amnesty, even this bill's sloppy, fraud-ridden amnesty, is worth it to get tough enforcement measures to curb future illegal immigration. Maybe so, but that's not the case with this bill. The enforcement requirements for Phase 2 of the amnesty to begin are irrelevant, because they measure inputs rather than results. Among the triggers are the requirement to build 370 miles of border fencing (less than half what Congress mandated just last year!), plus the hiring of a total of 18,000 Border Patrol agents (up from about 12,000 now). These are laudable objectives, and important (though insufficient) parts of any effort to control immigration. But they don't measure results; it could be that 370 miles of fencing isn't enough, or that we need more than 18,000 Border Patrol agents.
Genuine triggers would measure progress in actually reducing illegal immigration, not just inputs. Examples might be a reduction in illegal border crossings to no more than 50,000 a year, or two independent, non-government audits finding a 25 percent reduction in the total illegal population. Without some measure of results, the triggers are just a marketing gimmick, a way to dupe skeptics into believing that this amnesty would really, truly be the last one.
The bill as first proposed provided for the importation of 400,000 to 600,000 foreign workers, based on the mantra that "temporary means temporary," i.e., that the workers will be required to go home. (An amendment at mid-week cut the guest-worker program numbers in half.) As logical as this may seem on paper, it's another sham. Putting aside the fact that a modern society doesn't need a constant infusion of peasant laborers from abroad, it's an inescapable truth that "temporary" worker programs always fail. They always result in large-scale permanent settlement, they always create parallel streams of illegal immigration, and they always distort industries by removing the incentives to mechanize and to recruit local staff.
And the "temporary means temporary" mirage is belied by one glaring absence from the bill - there is no change in the current interpretation of the 14th Amendment, giving automatic citizenship to all children born here. Despite the fact that few countries still follow this rule, I prefer retaining it, if for no other reason than its simplicity. But you can't honestly propose a worker program that expects people to leave, and also give citizenship to the thousands of children they will inevitably have here.
Changing legal immigration
Finally, the Senate bill claims to shift immigration away from the current domination of family connections to a greater emphasis on skills and education. This, too, sounds attractive on paper, but is yet another sham.
Eliminating the immigration categories for adult brothers and sisters and adult sons and daughters of citizens would have the beneficial effect of limiting future "chain migration," where immigrants bring in their relatives, who in turn bring other relatives, and so on endlessly. But, as with the rest of this bill, the details negate the claims of supporters. It turns out that almost all those on waiting lists to be considered for immigration in these categories would be admitted first, and the bill increases family immigration significantly to accomplish this. The effect would be about 10 years of dramatically higher family immigration, after which the bill's sponsors assure us these categories would be discontinued. But anything I'm being promised 10 years from now is no promise at all.
The overriding purpose of the Senate bill is to amnesty illegal immigrants - everything else is window-dressing. Rather than go down this road, Congress would do well to put off further legislating on the issue and instead demand that the president do his job. Only when there's a demonstrated political commitment to enforce the law should Congress revisit the immigration issue. Until then, bipartisan inaction is the best policy.
Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.