The Great Debate

How complexity hinders immigration reform

By Susan M. Akram
April 10, 2013

The immigration bill being drafted by Congress has bipartisan support on three broad concepts ‑ a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, streamlining legal immigration and more stringent enforcement of the laws against hiring illegal workers. Each presents complex problems to solve, however, and obtaining consensus on the details will be far more problematic than agreeing on the principles.

Partially unpacking these three concepts shows why.

Streamlining the legal immigration system is no easy matter; there is no single approach that can produce a fair, workable, efficient and equitable immigration system. If the approximately 11 million undocumented persons in the United States are to be given a place in line to obtain residency and then citizenship, they are competing with millions of others already in line.

Even that statement is overly simplistic. For starters, there is no single “line” but rather multiple pathways and categories – and every immigrant must be eligible for one or more categories, wait to receive one of a limited number of visas in that category and satisfy a number of criteria at the time the visa becomes available. In addition, there are  six categories of family-based immigrants for which visas are allocated, with a certain number of visas set aside (and capped) each year, plus five employment-based categories with yearly caps.

Taking just a single slice of that waiting line, a recent study by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) notes that as of Nov. 1, 2012, there were more than 4.4 million people with approved visa petitions awaiting processing and final issuance. The overwhelming majority of these are family-based visa petitions from a small number of countries, with Mexico outnumbering all others.

Nor is this a complete picture, as these represent visa applicants from outside the United States who are processed by the Department of State. A separate line ‑ competing for the same scarce number of visas ‑ forms inside the United States, for family members or employees who are eligible to obtain residence while living within the United States from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS).

CIS does not publish its statistics on pending visa petitions, but there are certainly many thousands in this line. The MPI report concludes that “it would take 19 years to clear the existing backlogs in the family-based preference categories if no additional visas are allocated, assuming that no additional petitions for family-based preference immigrants were filed during this time.”

The reasons for the backlogs are the yearly caps on visa numbers both by category and nationality. There are far more applicants than there are available visas, and only 7 percent of the worldwide allocation can go to any particular national group each year. Thus, the backlogs for nationalities with strong ties to the United States ‑ like Mexico ‑ just keep growing.

How can Congress create a fair, equitable and efficient legal immigration system by focusing on family-based visas if another 11 million persons are added to the category and preference system? Adding numbers to each category every year will not by itself solve the problem ‑ assuming the undocumented residents have relatives qualified to file petitions for them under existing law. Should Mexicans, for example, be given a much greater number of visas to reduce the backlog? That could mean fewer visas for other national groups waiting in line, or eliminating categories of family or employment visas.

If a completely new category of temporary status is created ‑ such as in the 1986 legalization program ‑ will they be permitted to “jump the line” over the millions of others who have been waiting for years? Will they get priority over other families seeking to be reunified, or employees whose companies have been waiting for their valued workers to gain legal status? Will they be permitted to waive bars under current law ‑ such as the 3- and 10-year inadmissibility, or the prior deportation bars ‑ that prevent certain persons residing in the U.S. from adjusting to permanent resident status? Will they be able to obtain visas based on strong family ties, as other immigrants do, even if they have committed nonviolent crimes?

Clearly, consensus on broad principles will not be enough. There are scores of complicated issues that must be resolved by Congress and the administration.

In Massachusetts, a coalition of immigration advocates has agreed on 10 priorities for immigration reform and an additional 26 issues of concern for achieving comprehensive reform. The top 10 include eliminating the 3- and 10-year inadmissibility bars, expanding waivers for people with certain criminal convictions, eliminating bars to public benefits, ensuring that legalization covers those with prior deportation orders and ensuring a path for citizenship (not just residence) for the undocumented.

Without a far more nuanced and educated public conversation about what Americans are willing to support and see as fair or necessary, the chances are great that immigration “reform” will be just a short-term “fix” requiring a repeat performance in a few years.

PHOTO: Members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) United Service Workers West react after President Barack Obama’s speech on immigration inside La Plaza United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, California January 29, 2013. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

4 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

A well though out and documented piece. But let’s “cut to the chase”.

If our elected representatives are seriously suggesting that America be”…eliminating the 3- and 10-year inadmissibility bars, expanding waivers for people with certain criminal convictions, eliminating bars to public benefits, ensuring that legalization covers those with prior deportation orders and ensuring a path for citizenship (not just residence) for the undocumented”, they are advocating the progressive bankruptcy of America.

That is clearly “giving aid and comfort to the enemy” (those who would bankrupt this country). That’s the definition of a traitor. They should be hauled out of their plush offices, stood up against a wall, with or without a blindfold, and SHOT!

Without a far more nuanced and educated public conversation about what Americans are willing to support and see as fair or necessary, the chances are great that immigration “reform” will be just a short-term “fix” requiring a repeat performance in a few years.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Criminal aliens descending on our Capital. Where is ICE? Why didn’t the Federal Government enforce its immigration laws and start arresting the illegal aliens? We need a Federal Government that will enforce its laws and deport all illegal aliens, secure the border and fine anyone who hires an illegal alien. The gang of Eight is made up of senile old men who can’t remember that we tried Amnesty in 1986 for 3 million illegal aliens and now we have 11 million illegal aliens. We need Immigration Reform to change the laws to make employers of illegal aliens pay the cost of deporting the illegal aliens they hire.

Posted by Galactus9999 | Report as abusive

The paid advocates of immigration conveniently ignore the economic principle of supply and demand, which nature imposes.

Introducing more workers into any market increases the supply and thus drives down the wage rates.

It applies to any resource. If more medical doctors are introduced into a city, the existing medical doctors will find they have fewer patients, and their incomes will go down.

The same applies to agricultural workers. If a rural American county imports foreign laborers from Mexico or India, the existing local laborers will find their wages going down quickly.

Who benefits from immigration? The employers benefit and the immigrants benefit.

Who is hurt by immigration? The American laborer is directly harmed, and his family, home and occupation are, more often than not, destroyed forever.

Who can blame the American worker, whose career is destroyed, for speaking out against immigration? Or even for hating the American government, and immigration advocates, for such a brutal betrayal?

Largest Countries ranked by population:

1. China 1.3 billion people

2. India 1.2 billion people

3. United States 315 million (US growth is now skyrocketing due to immigration)

4. Indonesia 237 million (President Obama went to grade-school there)

5. Brazil 193 million

6. Pakistan 182 million

7. Nigeria 166 million

8. Bangladesh 152 million

9. Russia 143 million

10.Japan 127 million

11.Mexico 112 million

12.Phillipines 92 million

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cou ntries_by_population

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

I read your last paragraph and wondered how you could fail to note the news media’s complicity in suppressing a genuine “public conversation” and open debate about immigration policy. Then I looked over and saw your credentials and reckoned that you were likely another activist pushing a version of the same agenda of the news media.

The public conversation ought first to be about whether the citizens of this country want to limit immigration and if so, as polls for decades have indicated, why they have a government that acts to undermine that end. Limiting immigration means that people who would want to come here can’t and many of those who can will only be able to do so after many years. But having laws that limit immigration make no sense when people can simply immigrate without permission, in violation of the laws of the country, and are subsequently rewarded for those very violations with the right to stay permanently. It offends the treatment of those who are waiting in established lines to be able to immigrate in accordance with the law when those who ignored it and have been living in the country in violation of the law, enjoying the benefits of that, aided by a government that ignores its obligation to uphold the law, and are then given the legal right to continue to do so forever.

Posted by jskdn | Report as abusive

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/