President George Bush on Monday vowed to push the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill through Congress. That bill stalled in the Senate on June 7.
The focus of political controversy is on the more than 12 million undocumented immigrants illegally residing in the United States. However, in a very tight labor market, demand for both skilled and unskilled immigrant labor is still rising — a phenomenon that the bill only begins to address.
Lawmakers remain bitterly divided over an immigration bill designed to limit illegal immigration and increase opportunities for skilled immigrants to reside in the United States, thus ending the almost total U.S. reliance on family migration (or “chain migration”) for additional immigrant labor. Reducing family migration and increasing skilled migration each have their opponents, but the focus of the debate is on illegal immigration and whether the bill will address it.
The Senate bill, as drafted, has five key elements:
In an effort to deter illegal immigration, border security provisions receive a particular emphasis, including:
•increasing border fencing;
•increasing vehicle barriers at the southern border;
•boosting the size of the Border Patrol; and
•installing ground-based radar and camera towers along the southern border.
Alone, these measures would be meaningless. For years, Washington has poured huge amounts of money into border enforcement, to little effect. Demand for entry is too high; the border is long and difficult to patrol; and traffickers are adept at staying one step ahead of border enforcement rules.
Scholars have long argued that policy should target employers who offer jobs to illegal immigrants, rather than the migrants who take them. To this end, the bill:
•creates a single electronic Employment Eligibility Verification System (EEVS), which would require employers to check prospective employees’ details against government databases;
•requires all employers to use EEVS to verify the employment eligibility of existing and future workers;
•limits the range of government-issued documentation (Social Security cards, driver’s licenses, birth certificates) that can be checked against EEVS;
•raises the maximum criminal penalty for “a pattern or practice” of hiring illegal workers from $3,000 per alien to $75,000 per alien; and
•boosts civil penalties sharply.
‘Path’ to legal residency.
The most controversial measure gives illegal migrants a “path” to legal residency. The administration and its backers have argued that, as conditions are attached, the measure is not an “amnesty.” Instead, it allows illegal immigrants to apply for a temporary Z Visa:
To obtain the visa, undocumented migrants must acknowledge that they broke the law, pay a $1,000 fine, and undergo criminal background checks.
Z Visa status does not confer welfare benefits or sponsorship rights.
To obtain a regular legal-residency green card, Z Visa workers must wait in line behind those who applied lawfully, pay an additional $4,000 fine, complete accelerated English requirements, leave the United States and file their application in their home country, and demonstrate merit based on their skills and attributes.
The bill would also institute new Y Visas for individuals who wish to work in the United States temporarily. Applicants for Y Visas:
•may stay for up to three two-year periods, with at least a year in between;
•must be paid the minimum wage;
•have no access to welfare benefits;
•may only bring their family members for one of their two-year stays; and
•must leave permanently when their visa expires.
However, in the course of Senate negotiations, the overall quota for Y Visas was reduced to just 300,000 per year.
Currently, 70 percent of all legal U.S. immigrants are family migrants, and only 65,000 temporary visas (H1-Bs) are available for skilled migrants. Transferring from an H1-B to permanent residency (green card) status requires a long and expensive sponsorship process. The bill seeks to reduce the U.S. reliance on family migration by linking visas for skilled immigrants to the demand for particular workers in the U.S. economy. This would involve:
•eliminating green cards for the adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens, and capping green cards for parents of U.S.
•limiting accompanying family members to immediate relatives (parents, young children) as opposed to extended family members (grandparents, brothers, older children);
•allocating temporary and permanent visas that give priority to skill, education (with added points for science and math), language competence, employer offers, and age; and
•eliminating the lottery system.
There would be 380,000 visas available under the merit-based system for skilled immigrants. Permanent merit-based visas would come with the entitlement to bring immediate family members.
Effect on immigration.
The immigration bill’s supporters maintain that it would serve U.S. interests by attracting more skilled workers and decreasing legal immigration. However, these claims are open to challenge. Given the dynamism of the U.S. economy, it is already very easy to attract skilled workers — there simply are not enough visas available to meet employer demand. Moreover, it is very doubtful that the bill would lead to a decrease in overall immigration to the United States.
Increased illegal immigration?
The bill may actually lead to an increase in illegal immigration, for two broad reasons:
•labor demand/supply problems. Some 800,000 illegal migrants enter the United States annually, fuelling a massive demand for unskilled labor:
Unmet demand. The proposed quota to allow in up to 300,000 unskilled immigrants through the guest-worker program will be insufficient to meet demand. Therefore, the remaining 500,000 members of the annual influx will seek to incorporate themselves into the labor market illegally.
More trafficking? The bill may make the U.S. more attractive to human traffickers, who will lure more migrants with the promise that they can take advantage of Y or Z visas.
Flawed employer verification. While the proposed EEVS system is elaborate, it will only catch employers honest enough to run documents through it. If employers do not bother, it is not obvious how the rules can be enforced. This potential expansion of the “black economy” may have the perverse effect of reducing tax revenue. (Currently, illegal migrants often pay Social Security contributions and tax on the basis of forged identification.)
•guest-worker problems. Guest-worker programs have historically suffered from several problems, which may be particularly salient in the United States:
Despite several notable advantages over the United States — national identification cards, an extensive system of internal checks, much more thorough document-checking and a higher tolerance for state intrusion into private life — Germany could not effectively police its post-war guest-worker program.
There are no U.S. exit controls, which make verification that individuals have left the country, as opposed to a job, very difficult.
While 70 percent of the people who came as guest workers to Germany in the 1960s and 1970s returned home, several million remained.
Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See www.oxan.com .