America is and always will be a nation of immigrants. But the present debate over how many immigrants should be allowed in, who gets to come, and what should be done with those already here will dictate America’s demographic future.
U.S. politicians have been haggling over immigration reform for years. In 2007, legislation fizzled in the teeth of public disapproval, mostly from conservatives, of a plan to grant amnesty to the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
The 2007-08 financial crisis and resulting concerns over high unemployment pushed immigration reform to the backburner during President Obama’s first term. But in the wake of the 2012 election, in which more than 70 percent of Latinos voted to re-elect President Obama, a number of prominent conservatives agreed to work with Democrats on immigration reform in an attempt to shift the demographic tide of young minority voters turning away from the Republican Party.
With Congress set to debate the bipartisan Senate’s Gang of Eight proposal deep into the summer, the possibility of a sweeping overhaul of America’s immigration system has never been closer. Public opinion has also never been riper for change. But with millions of Americans still unemployed or underemployed and wages stagnant for all but the richest, the debate will be contentious and compromise is far from a foregone conclusion.
The Gang of Eight’s bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744), is an 867-page behemoth that seeks to strengthen border security and completely overhaul the U.S. immigration system. It provides a 13-year pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants with no felony convictions who have been in the country since Dec. 31, 2011. The legalization portion is contingent on a multibillion-dollar border security strategy that would double the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents to 40,000, require the completion of a 700-mile fence along the southern border, and expand the use of drones and other security measures.
Illegal immigrants would also have to submit to a number of requirements, including paying penalties and back taxes (notably, the bill doesn’t include a calculation for determining the exact amount of taxes owed), and they would not be eligible for federal benefits like Medicaid during their probationary legal status. The bill provides a faster track (five years) to citizenship for so-called Dream Act kids — minors brought to the United States by their parents before age 16.
It also creates a slew of new guest-worker programs and changes the way the caps are counted, roughly doubling the total number of guest workers allowed into the country. S.744 also revamps the present immigration system, which largely rewards those with family members in the United States, with a new merit-based point system that rewards highly educated and skilled migrants.
Of course, that’s the Senate plan, which passed by a 68-32 vote on June 27. What emerges from the deeply polarized House — many of whose Republican members are loath to take up the Senate bill — may be a different animal altogether.
There, representatives may pass their own comprehensive bill (which is being hammered out by a separate “gang”), they could vote on the Senate version (unlikely but not impossible), or — as some GOP leaders prefer — they could vote on a series of individual bills. Democrats have fought against the piecemeal approach, saying measures such as an employer E-Verify system and caps on H-1B visas are inextricably linked. Republicans counter that immigration doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.
Another possibility is that the effort just dies in the House, where many Republicans from deeply conservative districts could open themselves up to primary challenges back home if they back the bill (also see “Race for Immigration Reform May Face Hurdles in the House” in the April 2013 issue of The Washington Diplomat). Even if legislation ekes out of the House, a compromise bill would still need to be hashed out in conference committee.
The stakes are huge and the world is watching — some countries more than others. In fact, quite a few foreign governments are actively lobbying to shape the legislation to their liking.
In March, the Sunlight Foundation released a report on immigration lobbying from 2008 to 2012, before this year’s debate, which revealed that some 678 lobbying organizations, working mostly on behalf of business interests, spent more than $1.5 billion lobbying in favor of liberalized immigration. On the other side, NumbersUSA, the most prominent group lobbying for reduced levels of immigration, spent $600,000 on lobbying efforts in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics site OpenSecrets.org. That figure represents less than 10 percent of the $8 million spent by Microsoft Corp., which has long lobbied for increasing the H-1B visa program for skilled tech workers.
Immigration reform produces strange bedfellows. It is the only issue where you might find common ground between members of the Occupy Movement and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example. On the one hand, the left has long favored increased immigration in part because immigrants tend to vote Democratic, while the business community wants access to the greatest possible (and preferably cheapest) labor pool. But historically, the left and labor unions such as the AFL-CIO have been opposed to guest-worker programs, viewing them as exploitative and unfair to American workers.
And while conservatives abhor the notion of an “amnesty” for illegal immigrants already in the country, business interests that often lean Republican have been clamoring for a major expansion of guest-worker schemes — not only tech giants such as Facebook that want to attract computer programmers and engineers, but also agricultural and other labor-intensive sectors. The Gang of Eight bill offers a delicately crafted Faustian bargain to garner the support of both sides by offering a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, the left’s biggest concern, and a plan that will double the number of guest workers allowed into the country, in a nod to business interests.
But it’s not just domestic interests that are trying to influence the debate. Immigration reform is also a hugely important issue for the foreign countries that send the most migrants to the United States.
Notably Mexico and Central American nations, which rely heavily on remittances from workers in the United States — workers who could become eligible for eventual U.S. citizenship — are paying close attention to what happens in Congress this summer.
As the Hill’s Julian Pecquet reported earlier this year, government officials from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and other nations are making their opinions known, albeit discreetly given that immigration reform is a domestic matter.
“They all are extremely diplomatic in how they go about talking about this,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) told the newspaper. “But it’s no hidden secret that it’s important for a lot of these ambassadors and their governments to see comprehensive immigration reform pass.”
El Salvador, for instance, has at least 200,000 citizens living in the United States under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), first extended to the country in the 1980s during its brutal civil wars. Like other TPS countries, El Salvador hopes its nationals, who have been living here for years and whose TPS status must be regularly renewed, would be first in line in any eventual citizenship drive.
Beyond America’s southern neighbors, many other countries are keen for their unemployed to tap the U.S. labor market. According to a story in the New York Times, Poland, Ireland, South Korea, Canada and a number of other countries have recruited high-priced lobbying firms to help them carve out special access for their citizens in the omnibus legislation.
For example, the Gang of Eight bill would add Poland to the Visa Waiver Program, satisfying a longstanding gripe among Poles — many of whose Eastern European neighbors can already travel visa free to the United States. The bill would also set aside guest-worker visas for the Irish and South Koreans, lengthen visa stays for older Canadians, and grant other special perks to residents of Tibet, Hong Kong and parts of Africa.
“It’s like pork barrel immigration legislation — everyone gets their pet project,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter immigration controls along with a “warmer welcome” for immigrants who come legally. “For example, it has a visa provision for ski and snowboard instructors. But in order to figure out exactly what they’re talking about you have to refer back to Section 214(a)(2)(B) (8 U.S.C. 15 1184(a)(2)(B), whatever that is.”
Krikorian says that U.S. politicians appear happy to treat foreign governments like domestic special interests groups. Demetrios Papademetriou, president and co-founder of the left-leaning Migration Policy Institute, concedes that there is pork in the Senate bill, but calls it “pork on the margins.”
“Counting 15,000 or 20,000 visas here or there as pork is certainly right, but in terms of the overall context of the bill it is insignificant,” he said.
Papademetriou said that in the American system, legislation always entails a certain amount of horse-trading, and maintained that the immigration bill is no different than any other major bill.
Work in Progress
What may be different about this latest push is its focus on attracting high-skilled foreign workers to bolster the U.S. economy. The Senate proposal would rebalance the current visa system to favor job skills over family relations, upending longstanding policy.
Currently, about 75 percent of visas go to family members of immigrants already living in the United States. The proposed new merit system would reduce that number to about 50 percent, with the other half going to foreigners who’d earn points for, among other things, holding advanced degrees, especially in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (the STEM studies) and working in sought-after professional fields. The bill also creates a startup visa for foreign entrepreneurs who want to establish businesses that would hire Americans.
To achieve this rebalancing, the bill would eliminate certain categories of family members who could apply for a visa (namely siblings) and repeal the Diversity Visa Program, a lottery that allocates green cards to people from countries with low immigration rates.
In other words, as Rachelle Younglai of Reuters put it, under the new system, “an engineering graduate from India would have a better chance of immigrating to the United States than the grandmother of a naturalized U.S. citizen who does not speak English.”
Critics of a merit-based approach say America would no longer be the country that welcomes the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses — instead only opening its doors to those who could benefit its bottom line. But proponents of the changes say they are necessary to help America compete in a 21st-century world, especially in the critical STEM areas.
On that front, the Senate proposal would raise the number of H-1B visas for highly skilled workers from the current base cap of 65,000 to 110,000 a year. Eventually, the cap could go as high as 180,000, with the number calibrated to respond to market demand. The bill would also allow all foreign workers with advanced degrees earned in the United States to apply for an H-1B visa (currently there’s an annual quota), in an effort to keep the best and brightest from leaving U.S. shores after they get an education here.
Silicon Valley has been among the most vocal groups advocating for more H-1B visas, saying they’re desperately short of highly trained engineers, software developers and other specialized workers. They’ve also been battling Democratic-inserted provisions that would regulate the hiring of foreigners by forcing companies to show that “an equally qualified American” wasn’t available.
For the most part, the Senate compromise is a major coup for tech companies. Papademetriou says the legislation “delivers for the business community in spades” and is the best bill supporters of immigration reform could hope for.
Of course, the effort to fill plugs in high-wage professions is only part of the immigration equation. The legislation also creates new guest-worker programs (W visas) for farm workers and other lower-skilled labor. It is perhaps this element that gets to the heart of a debate that’s raged for decades: Do immigrants represent an economic boon or a financial drain for their host country?
Historically, high-skilled, educated migrants to the United States have been dwarfed by lower-skilled, less-educated immigrants who compete for jobs with less-educated Americans, who are already struggling. In the first quarter of 2013, unemployment was 18.1 percent for American citizens (including naturalized immigrants) without a high school diploma. It was 10.3 percent for citizens with only a high school education, while the broader measure of unemployment, which takes into account discouraged workers and those with only part-time or irregular jobs, was 29.8 percent for citizens without a high school education and 18.4 percent for those with a high school diploma.
Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute admits this group — which includes immigrants already here — will be affected by any reform that could usher in new waves of workers, especially low-end earners.
“The brunt of the impact will be born by immigrants and people who work in jobs that pay $8, $9, $10 an hour,” said Papademetriou. “They will oppose this legislation for good reason. But if you go beyond the gut reaction to this — ‘My God more competition’ — and look at the evidence, the evidence is quite different.”
Papademetriou argues that less-educated Americans have been impacted more deeply by globalization and free trade than immigration. Others argue that immigrants tend to take jobs that Americans are unwilling to do anyway. “Yes immigration plays a role in keeping wages down, but it’s a relatively small role and it plays only a very minor role in job displacement,” Papademetriou said.
Krikorian sharply disagrees. “We haven’t even caught up in job creation with where we were before the recession,” he said. “To create jobs for all the new arrivals, you’d have to have a level of job creation that we’ve never had in our history.”
Likewise, opponents of increased immigration point to studies like one released this spring by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which asserted that illegal immigrant households use about $55 billion more in services than they pay in taxes each year. Calculating that those migrants would begin to get more benefits after they receive green cards, the report estimates that the fiscal costs over the lifetime of illegal immigrants, if they receive amnesty, would be $6.3 trillion.
These figures were quickly disputed by critics who questioned Heritage’s methodology, which they say severely underestimates the amount of taxes immigrants would pay while overestimating the services they’d need. Notably, the think tank also failed to take into account the net positive economic impact of immigration, even though it boosts a nation’s workforce (crucial in nations facing demographic decline), generates growth and brings people out of the economic shadows.
In fact, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released figures in June showing that the Senate’s immigration bill would significantly reduce the federal deficit in its first two decades — by nearly $200 billion in the first 10 years after its passage, and by a whopping $700 billion over the subsequent 10 years. The reason is because it would legalize roughly 10 million people, bringing in new tax-paying workers into the labor force, including many high-skilled entrepreneurs who could further generate economic innovation.
Yet there’s little doubt that immigration does have adverse effects on some workers. President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 legislation did open the immigration floodgates, offering amnesty but little in the way of enforcement or job creation — or fixing what many agree remains a broken system.
And from 2000 to 2010, at a time when wages for most middle-class Americans fell or remained stagnant, more immigrants arrived in the United States than in any prior decade, with more than 14 million new arrivals, legal and illegal, settling in the country.
That record-setting decade of immigration will likely be broken this decade if S. 744 or something like it passes. First, it would legalize the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, who would eventually be able to petition for family members to join them in the United States, a ripple effect that would bring millions more to U.S. shores. Second, S. 744 grants entry to several million migrants who have been waiting, in some cases many years, to immigrate legally to the United States. Third, new guest-worker schemes, depending on how you look at them, could help U.S. businesses flourish or leave already-hurting U.S. workers floundering. Any way you look it, though, immigration reform will dramatically increase the number of foreign-born workers in the American labor pool.
Whether that’s a good or bad thing will consume Congress this summer, but will the debate produce any results?
Papademetriou says he is optimistic but cautions that the House is likely to water any legislation down. Krikorian hopes the effort sinks altogether. “They are trying to create this sense of inevitability that isn’t quite there yet,” he said.
About the Author
Dave Seminara is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.