Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
–Robert Frost, "Mending Wall"
There is a window of political opportunity in U.S. immigration policy: The House has passed a version of immigration reform and the Senate is currently debating its own. If signed into law, it would be the first comprehensive change in immigration policy in more than two decades. Currently, there are more than 12 million undocumented people living and working in the United States, and thousands more streaming across the borders each month in search of economic opportunity. So far, the only consensus seems to be that something should be done.
Among the provisions under consideration is the legalization of undocumented immigrants, provided they pay up to $5,000 in fees and return to their home country to apply. Opponents decry this amnesty proposal as rewarding those who, ipso facto, broke the law.
There is also a proposed shift in how visas for new applicants are awarded. The new policy would reduce the priority given to family reunification and implement a merit-based point system that gives preference to immigrants with education and skills. Some groups, including the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker social justice organization, have reservations about this change. "Family unification, the cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy since 1965, will be more difficult under the proposed legislation," writes the AFSC. "It would eliminate the ability of U.S. citizens to petition for residency for their adult children and siblings."
Others see the proposed legislation as an attack on the American tradition of welcoming the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The preference for skilled and educated workers, and the large fees extracted from those earning minimal wages, arguably excludes the poorest.
A parallel guest worker program is also under close scrutiny. Under this scheme, temporary two-year visas would be issued. They could be renewed twice, with a mandatory one-year return to the home country between renewals. Proponents of the program argue that it will help poorer countries by ensuring that money and skills from the United States are reabsorbed at home. Previous experience with the Bracero Program (1942–1964), a similar experiment with temporarily bringing Mexican laborers into the United States, shows that this type of program is not immune to exploitation of workers.
For a temporary worker program to function, it would have to dance around the delicate balance of labor supply and demand. If done right, a guest worker program could satisfy America's thirst for low-skilled workers. As Matthew Hennessey writes elsewhere in Policy Innovations, "Comparative advantage, if applied to immigration, suggests that labor should be allowed to migrate where it can be most efficient."
Despite the many concerns, Congress is on the right track that something must be done about illegal immigrants who come to this country to work and end up living in society's shadow. The current laws confronting immigrants are a complex and often contradictory set of temporary and permanent solutions regarding their legal status, which can leave them in limbo for years. To immigrants, legalization would be an increase in quality of life, including the ability to apply for mortgages, get driver licenses, and travel freely. As legal residents, immigrants would also enjoy more civil and political rights and be better positioned to negotiate for fairer treatment and wages.
Steven Macedo of Princeton University believes there may be a tradeoff, however, between large amounts of low-wage immigration to the United States and domestic distributive justice. Consumers and many employers have benefited from the huge influx in undocumented low-skilled workers since the 1980s, but David Howell of the Political Economy Research Institute finds that there has been downward pressure on wages at the lower end of the labor market.
The new bill would become the first comprehensive overhaul of immigration in more than two decades. A similar attempt in the 1980s to shore up the border exacerbated—if not created—the current mess. As with today's proposals, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 beefed up border security and granted some form of amnesty for illegal immigrants who entered the United States before a certain date.
The 1986 bill started another trend in U.S. policy: immigrants paying for the cost of immigration. As a result, immigrants now pay 90 percent of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service budget (formerly part of the INS). This has created a "paradoxical disincentive" for the agency to modernize and change, because a more efficient system would ultimately result in fewer fees collected for renewals. Not surprisingly, the agency has a reputation of inefficiency and delays. The question, then, is whether the current, neglected system has the capacity to deport the two million or so immigrants that would have to be removed under the new law.
Many blame NAFTA for worsening economic conditions for farmers in Mexico and driving them north to where their labor is needed. Current U.S. immigration policies do not take into consideration these adjustments created by policies elsewhere in the government. In this context, is there a role for international organizations to regulate immigration? India challenged U.S. immigration policy at the WTO in 2005, claiming that services performed by foreigners can be regulated by the global body. This type of service trade is known as "Mode 4." India argued for the United States to extend temporary visas for skilled professionals, whose remittances are a welcome boost to the Indian economy. Many in the developing world wonder if the WTO could not also play a future role in regulating low-skilled labor.
The United States has an opportunity to align its broken policies with the economic and political realities of immigration in the 21st century. Although no one is ecstatic about the comprehensive immigration reform bill currently being debated in the Senate, that fact doesn't necessarily portend failure. Instead, it's likely a sign that both sides may be ready for compromise. The true injustice would be passing no bill at all.