Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Senate Immigration Reform Bill's Vices and Virtues

One of the biggest stories out of Washington this last week was the emerging Senate compromise on immigration reform. The bill's turning out to be a controversial measure, with potentially affected interest groups from both sides of the spectrum ratcheting up their opposition. The proposed legislation -- bandied about as potentially the most important immigration overhaul since the 1986 Immigration Reform Act -- is actually a real complicated hodgepodge of initiatives. These range from greater attempts to control the entry of illegal migrants to the country, a guest worker program, restrictions on family reunification, as well as some type of worker skills quota system (that so far has not been completely worked out).

Now, I always enjoy reading the Wall Street Journal's editorials on immigration, but unlike on their Iraq commentaries, I usually have a major disagreement with the editorial staff's views on illegal alien issues.
Here's the introduction to the Journal's Saturday editorial on the vices and virtues of the Senate immigration bill:

The White House and key Senators struck an immigration deal this week that looks like the best chance in years to balance border security with human and economic realities. There's room for improvement and a long way to go before any reform becomes law, but Senators Jon Kyl of Arizona and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts deserve high marks for making progress.

On the plus side, the bill addresses the 12 million undocumented aliens living in the U.S. by providing a way for most to obtain legal status with minimal disruption to their lives or employers. In return for reporting to authorities, paying a $5,000 fine, passing a criminal-background check and making a "touch back" visit to their home country, illegal aliens would be eligible for a "Z" visa allowing them to keep working here.

Restrictionists are calling this "amnesty," but they were going to slap that label on anything this side of mass deportation. The public is understandably upset about the presence of so many illegal aliens in the U.S. But there is no evidence that voters want millions of foreign families--many of whom have been here for decades and have American children--uprooted and forcibly removed from the country. The restrictionist wing of the GOP simply wants no new immigration, and "amnesty" is merely a political slogan to kill any reform.

Another major part of the legislation is more problematic: This would shift immigration away from family ties and toward a merit-based model that favors better-educated immigrants with higher skills. The stated justification for this change is that the U.S. currently admits too few skilled workers due to unchecked "chain migration," which facilitates the entry of unschooled and unskilled kin. That's hard to credit, however, considering data that show the typical legal immigrant already has a higher skill level than the typical American.

We're all for admitting the world's best and brightest, but the economic benefits of immigration also derive from the way immigrant skills complement the U.S. work force. Foreign workers make the U.S. more productive because they complement us at both the high and low ends of the skills spectrum. Remove the low-end leg of the stool, and you make the economy less productive and natives worse off. Why? Because we'll be using our human capital less efficiently. Natives may end up doing jobs they're overqualified to do, or those jobs will disappear altogether and diminish our quality of life.
So far so good. The editorial also cites statistics on the numbers of immigrants working in various lower-skilled occupations (like agriculture, construction, culinary arts, and janitorial work). But I always get a kick out of the Journal's immigration pieces when they get to the topic of employer sanctions for hiring unodocument, illegal aliens. Here's their current line:

[The] GOP lawmakers want to harass businesses by increasing the penalties for unlawful hiring and require employers to electronically verify the immigration status of new employees. These conditions come from the same Republicans who say we can't repeat the mistakes of the 1986 immigration overhaul, which also featured employer sanctions.
Harass businesses? When is it harassment to mandate -- through democratically-approved legislation -- that firms join-in on the enforcement of the nation's immigration laws? I'd have to refer to earlier published articles -- or some of my own posts -- on this question, but one of the biggest problems with the employers' sanctions regime coming out of 1986 is that is was barely enforced.

The Wall Street Journal's my favorite newspaper, and I'm a big pro-capitalist, but there are some problems in corporate America's handling of immigration control issues (
a transnational outlook, in many ways oppposed to U.S. domestic interests, being one of these).

In any event, those who've regularly visited this page -- especially last summer, following all the La Raza marches in Los Angeles, and so forth -- may recall that I put up a fair number of posts on the immigration reform controversy.

Check out these earlier posts for a look back at some previous analysis: "
Basic Division: The GOP and Immigration Reform" (one of my most comprehensive posts on immigration, with scholarly references); "Immigration Nation: The Key Components of Immigration Reform" (immigration expert Tamar Jacoby's analysis of the immigration reform debate); "Lou Dobbs on How Radical Leftists Have Taken Over the Immigration Movement" (from the ubiquitous, populist CNN broadcast anchor); "Ordering Cheesesteak? Please Speak English" (on last year's big controversy out of Philadelphia on English only in the U.S.); "What Grandma Would Say About Immigration Reform" (Peggy Noonan's coolly argued thesis on slowing the pace of in-migration to the U.S.).

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