How complexity hinders immigration reform
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