The immigration spring
The New York Times said the following in a recent editorial:
It has been amazing this year to watch immigration reform, that perennial train wreck of an issue, keep rolling forward without losing steam or blowing up. A bipartisan band of senators called the Gang of Eight has been working steadily for months on a bill; a similar group in the House is doing the same; diverse outside forces are lining up to urge all of them on, and every week seems to bring new reason for optimism.
The news over the weekend may be the best yet: an agreement in principle between two old adversaries, business and labor, on a new visa program for lower-skilled workers in industries like hotels, restaurants and construction. Previous immigration overhauls have died because of the seemingly unbridgeable divide between business groups, which want an abundant flow of cheap workers, and labor unions, which want to protect the jobs and wages of workers already here. The impasse had been threatening to derail current efforts to draft legislation, just as it did the last time Congress came close to passing a bill, in 2007.
The breakthrough seems to have come through the vanishing art of compromise. According to negotiators, business won’t get the annual flood of 400,000 guest workers it wanted, but it will get four years of rising visa totals going from 20,000 to 75,000. After that, visa levels would rise and fall with the unemployment rate and other factors, with a maximum of 200,000 a year.
Labor, meanwhile, gets significant worker protections, including the right for immigrants to change jobs and to seek green cards and citizenship if they wish. Labor’s objection to previous guest-worker programs was that they import workers who are shackled to employers and thus acutely vulnerable to exploitation a recipe for abysmal wages and working conditions for everybody.
The deal as it has been outlined is highly encouraging, but an actual bill hasn’t been seen yet, much less debated. And there is so much else to negotiate beyond the future flow of guest workers. Here are some of the devilish details that remain:
Any bill should give the 11 million unauthorized immigrants a shot at citizenship within a reasonable time: a decade or less. We want the system to create new Americans, not a permanent subclass of the marginalized and poor. A bill should swiftly clear long backlogs in legal immigration, and not burden the unauthorized with onerous penalties that will only keep them in the shadows.
A bill that cracks down on illegal hiring by expanding the E-Verify database should also include robust anti-discrimination provisions and protect privacy and whistle-blowers. But it must not demand border-sealing benchmarks, or “triggers,” as a condition for legalization.
As the immigration debate has moved forward, it has also gone topsy-turvy; left and right are jumbled and players are in unfamiliar positions. President Barack Obama says the right words about giving hope to the unauthorized, but is still playing the role of hard-core enforcer: His administration is deporting people at record rates, and keeping detention cells full. More Republicans are trying to appear welcoming to immigrants, though how well these penitents reflect their party as a whole is unclear.
The loudest voices on the anti-immigrant fringe, at least so far, have been drowned out by the calls for comprehensive reform, which a solid majority of Americans in polls support.
Die-hards like Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama are imploring Democratic leaders to slow the process down, which is another way of letting it fester. He should remember that those who have griped the loudest about the immigration problem have always been short on solutions. We are encouraged by the doggedness of Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said of reform: “If I can sell it in South Carolina, don’t come to me and say it’s hard. This is a conservative state, and the way we’re selling it is to fix it.”