Making the Most of the President’s First Step on Comprehensive Immigration Reform

“As a nation that values immigration, and depends on immigration, we should have immigration laws that work and make us proud.  Yet today we do not. Instead, we see many employers turning to the illegal labor market.  We see millions of hard-working men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive, undocumented economy.  Illegal entry across our borders makes more difficult the urgent task of securing the homeland.  The system is not working.  Our nation needs an immigration system that serves the American economy, and reflects the American Dream.”

                                                                                                                                                              ----President George W. Bush, January 7th, 2004

Washington, DC -- On January 7th, 2004, President George W. Bush spoke of the need for immigration reform and outlined the principles of reform his Administration supports.  The National Immigration Forum, one of the premier immigrant advocacy organizations in the country, congratulates the President for recognizing the contributions of immigrants to America, and for his moving description of the plight of undocumented immigrants.  We concur that our immigration system is in desperate need of being fixed, and that comprehensive reform must deal with both undocumented immigrants already here as well as the future flow of immigrants coming to fill available jobs.  And we agree that effective immigration reforms will result in improved border security and controls.

While President Bush’s announcement underscores the point that comprehensive immigration reform is an idea whose time has come, the principles outlined in his announcement fall short of fixing the problems he so accurately described.  We can and must do better.  Our collective aim should be to enact reforms that realize U.S. traditions both as a nation of immigrants and as a nation of laws.  To do so, we call on the Bush Administration, Congressional leaders from both political parties, and constituencies from across the political spectrum to build on the momentum created by the President’s announcement and rise to the challenge of crafting historic and comprehensive immigration reform.  This can be done if leaders are willing to prioritize sound policy over partisan politics and work on a bipartisan basis to produce balanced legislation that can be enacted this year. 

Our challenge is to fashion comprehensive and coherent immigration reform legislation that, over time, makes migration safe, legal, and orderly.  To achieve this, many moving parts need to be integrated intelligently so that our immigration system evolves into one that reflects migration realities, restores the rule of law, rewards the hard work of immigrants, respects U.S. workers, recognizes the legitimate needs of U.S. employers, reunites families in a timely fashion, renews citizenship and assimilation as the cornerstones of our success as a nation of immigrants, and rebuilds public confidence in the safety, security, and orderliness of our immigration policies.  It will not be easy to accomplish this, but the task is urgent.  

If we are to succeed, the President’s proposal will have to be significantly improved.  Here is how that can be done:

1)      Circularity and Citizenship

The President’s plan promotes circularity, the process by which migrants work in the U.S. for a number of months or years and then return to their home countries.  It does not, however, provide a clear path to permanent residence and eventual citizenship either for those immigrants already here or those to be admitted in the future.  For comprehensive reform to work, both circularity and settlement are necessary components.  Adding a meaningful and clear path to permanent status will a) reward the hard work and recognize the equities of immigrants who are already here, want to settle here, and are already matched with willing employers; b) encourage immigrants who want to settle in America to maintain legal status rather than go underground, which will help achieve the objective of making legality the prevailing norm in our immigration system; c) encourage long-term residents to become full-fledged members of American society; and d) address U.S. labor needs that are not temporary in nature, as job growth in low and semi-skilled industries continues to outpace the available supply of U.S. workers (who are increasingly retiring or obtaining higher degrees).  A path to permanent status can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but the method we support is an earned legalization process so that workers can move from temporary status to permanent status by satisfying requirements regarding time in the country, their work record, tax payments, and commitment to learning English and civics.

2)     Employer Access and Worker Protections

      Comprehensive reform must reconcile the legitimate needs of employers in search of a stable workforce with the legitimate needs of both U.S. and immigrant workers to secure jobs with equitable wages and decent working conditions.  To accomplish this, the President’s plan must be more targeted, more specific, and more balanced.  The key elements of a workable worker visa program are:

a)      Target the visas and test the labor market:  Work visas should be targeted to specific jobs and sectors of the labor market for which there are demonstrable shortages.  In fact, as much as possible, the visas should replace the current labor market-driven illegal flow with a legal flow of workers.  The key to making a worker visa program usable and workable is that it efficiently matches willing workers from outside the U.S. with employers who legitimately need them.

b)      Protect wages, allow visa portability, and provide a path to permanent status: It is critical that employers applying for temporary workers agree to pay the same wages and provide the same working conditions provided to U.S. workers, so that the U.S. workers are not harmed by newly-admitted workers.  In fact, a temporary worker program should be set up so that it is more expensive for employers to bring in workers on temporary visas than to hire U.S. workers, so that the incentive is to hire U.S. workers first.  In addition, the visas temporary workers hold should be portable to better balance the worker-employer relationship.  If employees are beholden to a single employer, they will be less able to bargain for better wages and working conditions or ultimately vote with their feet by leaving one employer for another.  And, there must be a path to permanent residence for those workers who elect to make America their permanent home so that they maintain their legal status as they earn their way to citizenship.  Finally, a properly-funded enforcement mechanism that is complaint-driven, swift, and effective is necessary to ensure compliance.

3)     Worker Visas and Family Visas: Comprehensive immigration reform must harmonize public policy with the factors that drive migration: economic opportunity and family unity.  A well-designed path to legal status for workers here and workers coming in the future addresses the former; reforming the family preference immigration system addresses the latter.   Unfortunately, the Bush plan leaves out this critical component entirely.  Currently, it takes many years, and sometimes more than a decade, for U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to be reunited with their family members under U.S. immigration law.  For example, a U.S. citizen mother who wants to sponsor her unmarried son will wait nearly four years to have him join her in the United States.  If the son is a citizen of Mexico, the wait is more than nine years.  If the son is a citizen of the Philippines, the U.S. citizen mother will wait for more than thirteen years. Faced with such lengthy separations from their U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident family members, some people overstay short-term visas or even risk being smuggled into the United States in order to be with their families.  A wider legal channel for the reunification of families will reward those waiting in line, clear out the backlogs over time, and reduce this perverse incentive for illegal immigration.

4)     Realistic Limits and Effective Enforcement:  To better enforce immigration laws, we have to make them enforceable.  By legalizing those here and legalizing much of the future flow, our nation will go far towards restoring the rule of law.  However, wider legal channels must be augmented with more effective enforcement.  The Bush plan is vague on this subject.  We recommend a three part strategy: a) a “smart borders” regime that screens those who enter efficiently, patrols the border with professionalism and accountability, and cracks down on human traffickers (building on the Bush Administration’s progress on this front); b) joint agreements with sending countries to crack down on smugglers and discourage illegal immigration; and c) penalties directed at unscrupulous employers who exploit workers and undermine law-abiding competitors.

The chief problem with President Bush’s proposal is that it moves us away from what has marked our success as a nation of immigrants: our ability to successfully integrate new immigrants into American communities and into the society at large.  If there is no path to citizenship for those who want to stay, we move in the direction of having a class of workers who have no possibility of becoming Americans.  For those who want to stay, our government should reward their work, recognize their contributions, and encourage them to learn English, become citizens, and participate in the civic life of their communities.

The President’s announcement has re-started a long overdue discussion of immigration reform.  While some doubt that a comprehensive immigration reform bill can be enacted any time soon, we believe now is the time to try.  What is needed is the will and intelligence of the key actors, inside and outside of government.  The National Immigration Forum stands ready to work with all responsible parties to craft good ideas into real reforms that work in practice.

For additional statements and backgrounders regarding comprehensive immigration reform, please visit http://www.immigrationforum.org/CurrentIssues/CIR.htm.  Information will be updated frequently, so please check this page to see what’s new.

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