Despite the recent political scandals (IRS, NSA, AP wiretap) that have dominated the headlines of every major news outlet, comprehensive immigration reform is still taking shape in Congress. The Gang of Eight’s recent proposal has been met with both support and disapproval, but recent efforts to include major increases to border security along the U.S. – Mexico border, to the tune of 20,000 additional border patrol agents, $3.2 billion in high-tech surveillance equipment, and a mandate to complete 700 miles of new fencing along the border, have opened the door of compromise that would let many Republicans opposed to the original bill become proponents of it under this new provision. But do these provisions and the Gang of Eight’s bill sufficiently address the problem of illegal immigration in America? Three things come to mind when thinking about immigration reform:
What do we do with the 11 million current illegal immigrants in the U.S.?
What kind of enforcement measures are we going to put into place to stop and/or discourage illegal immigration?
How do we get the type of immigrants we want?
The current bill would give the 11 million illegal immigrants “legal status” for 13 years before becoming a citizen of the United States. This is certainly a long time to have a second class of citizen that is not provided for in the Constitution. For example, those on this “pathway to citizenship” will enjoy many of the rights and privileges of a U.S. citizen, but almost all of them will be barred from using federal safety net programs. Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HA) recently pointed this out when she wrote in Politico that the pathway to citizenship should not exclude federal safety net programs, and that immigrant taxpayers should have access to these programs. At the same time, the bill looks very similar to 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which pretty much granted amnesty to the 3 million illegal immigrants in the country at the time. Twenty seven years later, Congress is essentially proposing amnesty, even though IRCA was described as a “one-time legalization program…” and “… a necessary part of an enforcement program”. The problem with amnesty is that it is profoundly unfair for everyone who successfully navigated the U.S.’s complex immigration system and stayed here legally. Furthermore, it would be an injustice towards those current 4.4 million individuals who are waiting in line to come to the United States, some of whom have been waiting for more than twenty years.
While Republicans are focusing on border patrol as a major enforcement tactic, this does not address the fact that illegal immigration will still continue to happen. Even if we could depend on the new amendment to provide for more robust border security (although we’ve largely been unsuccessful since 1986, and there are major concerns with the new measures), illegal immigrants will still continue to flow into our country. Enforcement, then, should also encompass what to do with illegal immigrants even after comprehensive immigration reform happens. This means that we need to strengthen e-Verify. There are many reservations with the efficacy of the system, and so the Federal government should expend resources to improve the reliability and accuracy of the program. Many employers will still elect to not sign up and game the system, but putting in place draconian penalties along with strong enforcement on the backend of e-Verify should help stem the tide of illegal employment, which is the primary reason for illegal immigration. Of course, this may create another massive government bureaucracy that may prove to be grossly ineffective (see how well the watch list worked out for CIA, FBI, and DHS on the Boston bomber).
On a weekly basis, I have online political discussions with friends from all over the political spectrum and immigration has recently been a hot topic. One conservative friend, Ryan, noted, “I actually think this [e-Verify] is a worthy government spending item. It is necessary to have secure borders and to maintain an inflow of immigrants that contribute to all tiers of the economy, from low-skilled to tech CEO. I just need some sign that it will be effective, because we seem to revisit the immigration issue once every 20-25 years.” As of 2011, e-Verify has a customer satisfaction rating of 85 based on the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). I don’t exactly know what this means or how that translates to overall accuracy and effectiveness, but this seems like a low number considering that this can directly affect the lives of individuals living in the United States. While it should be noted that this score is 20 points above the current federal government average (whoop-dee-doo), DHS should continue to take steps in ramping up this program to ensure near perfect accuracy.
So how do we get the type of immigrants we want? Well, in order to answer that question, we must first ask ourselves: What kind of immigrants do we want? I guess that depends who you ask. Most politicians say that they want to create policies that present the best economic opportunities so that America can attract the best and brightest to become permanent residents and eventually American citizens. Many also lament about how students are coming to America to receive a world class education, only to return to their native countries because of a flawed immigration system. In any case, it seems that we want highly educated immigrants who can contribute to our society. In terms of economic impact, there are many competing ideas. Recently, the CBO estimated that the immigration bill would reduce the federal deficits by nearly $200 billion, over the next ten years. On the contrary, a Heritage study finds that it would actually cost the American taxpayers billions of dollars. Whatever the case, the economic impact of immigrants is a factor when considering the development of immigration policies. These considerations, of course, ignore the ideal inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, the tempest tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Let’s be clear. America does not want criminals, but aside from that, we’ve accepted nearly everyone from almost every walk of life. Can we still continue to maintain this accommodating and gracious posture towards all who are seeking refuge or opportunity in the United States? I’m not sure. But whatever happens, the U.S. needs to make sure that any program built should make the future immigration process more efficient, effective, and enforceable.