Fixing immigration, but not necessarily the Rubio way
In U.S. political debates, there is a tendency to separate economic issues, like taxes, spending and regulation, from social issues, like abortion rights, gay rights and gun rights. Immigration, as a general rule, tends to fall in this latter bucket, as an issue that comes up mainly because it matters to Latino and Asian voters and a handful of vocal immigration restrictionists.
There is a decent case that immigration should really be understood as an economic issue – indeed, as the most important economic issue facing U.S. policymakers. That is part of why Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has attracted so much attention for his recent call for comprehensive immigration reform, a call echoed by voices across the political spectrum, including President Barack Obama’s. But Rubio’s plan has been met with considerable resistance, in large part because debates over immigration policy also have a moral dimension. Understanding it is key to breaking out of our immigration impasse.
But first, it is important to understand why the immigration issue is gaining momentum. Back in 2011, J.P. Morgan released a report that found that U.S. households own $70 trillion in physical and financial assets. This same report found that America’s stock of human capital, i.e., the collective education and experience of all U.S. workers, amounted to $700 trillion. Rather than pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into new roads, bridges and housing units, the surest and cheapest strategy for increasing our collective wealth is to import talented workers. Even as the United States is mired in a sluggish semi-recovery, vast numbers of skilled English-speaking foreigners are eager to settle in, to start businesses and buy homes. These keen would-be immigrants represent low-hanging economic fruit, a fact that is well understood in Silicon Valley and Wall Street, where high-wattage immigrants have made an outsized contribution.
Among policymakers, there is a growing consensus that the United States should welcome more skilled workers. During the last presidential campaign, Mitt Romney called for granting work visas to foreign students who completed science, technology and engineering degrees at U.S. universities. The problem, however, is that most immigrant advocates don’t want to separate out the effort to increase skilled immigration from the far more contentious cause of giving America’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants, most of whom have modest skills, a “path to citizenship.” President Obama, in keeping with influential immigrant advocacy groups like America’s Voice, has insisted that the United States should only welcome more skilled workers as part of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that also addresses the legal status of the unauthorized.
And so Rubio, who represents a state that has long been a gateway for immigrants, has called for reform that would increase the number of visas for skilled workers, create a guest-worker program aimed at seasonal farm workers, require all employers to check the legal status of potential employees against a federal E-Verify database, and, most controversially, offer law-abiding unauthorized immigrants a path to citizenship. This path wouldn’t be an easy one, as it would require such immigrants to pay back taxes and a fine, and demonstrate some degree of English language proficiency. That said, Rubio’s approach is broadly in line with that advanced by the Obama administration, and indeed by President George W. Bush’s immigration reform effort from 2007.
Rubio deserves a great deal of credit for sparking a new, more constructive immigration reform discussion, and he has received the enthusiastic support of Representative Paul Ryan, a leading light among conservatives in the House. There is an underlying concern among conservatives and at least some moderates that the unauthorized immigrant population is likely to prove less economically self-reliant than their skilled counterparts. The deeper challenge Rubio faces, however, is that at least some conservatives consider his proposal too generous to unauthorized immigrants. To these critics, its various requirements and back taxes and fines don’t make up for the fact that unauthorized immigrants have violated America’s immigration laws, and in doing so have expressed a basic disrespect for our system of government.
One answer to this essentially moral objection is to offer a path to normalization instead. In the most recent issue of National Affairs, the right-of-center domestic policy journal, Peter Skerry, a Boston College political scientist and one of the leading experts on Mexican immigration to the United States, proposes a new approach to immigration reform. Skerry’s plan would allow unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the country as children to become lawful permanent residents with a quick and easy path to citizenship, in a slightly more generous version of the Obama-backed DREAM Act. Unauthorized immigrants who arrived as adults, however, would become “permanent non-citizen residents,” free to live and work in the U.S. but without the option of eventually becoming citizens.
For Skerry, the virtue of this approach is that it is straightforward and therefore enforceable. Rubio’s call for back taxes, fines and English language proficiency requirements is designed to avoid rewarding unauthorized immigrants for violating U.S. laws. Yet it is hard to imagine that America’s overstretched immigration enforcement apparatus could competently enforce these measures. Skerry’s penalty of permanent noncitizenship is easy to enforce, and it is serious enough to suggest that the nation takes violations of its immigration laws very seriously indeed.
In a recent conversation, Skerry shared his skepticism regarding guest-worker programs on the closely related grounds that they are notoriously difficult to enforce. A small handful of countries, such as Canada, have crafted relatively successful guest-worker programs. But Canada’s program has succeeded in part by strictly regulating the lives of guest workers. Participation is limited to married men, and guest workers are isolated from the broader society. It is difficult to imagine that American civil libertarians would find such an arrangement acceptable.
One assumes that immigration advocates would strongly object to Skerry’s proposal, as would many congressional Democrats. There is a widely held view on the left that offering a path to citizenship to unauthorized immigrants would redound to the benefit of center-left politicians, as low-income Latino voters have emerged as a key Democratic constituency. Conservative critics, meanwhile, will note that “permanent noncitizen residents” might at some point in the future be granted a path to citizenship, as Congress can always decide to revise the terms of the deal. Skerry’s proposal does, however, offer a way forward that meets the strongest objections of conservative opponents of immigration reform. That allows Congress to make progress on the far more important matter of skilled immigration. Best of all, it’s a proposal that America’s broken immigration bureaucracy can actually enforce.
PHOTO: A woman leaves the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices in New York, August 15, 2012. The U.S. government began accepting applications on Wednesday from young illegal immigrants seeking temporary legal status under relaxed deportation rules announced by the Obama administration in June. REUTERS/Keith Bedford