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Immigration Reformís Moment

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
April 9, 2007

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No faction is happy with the state of U.S. immigration policy. Some Americans bristle at the gray existence of the roughly twelve million (USA Today) illegal immigrants in the United States, who are subject to deportation at a moment’s notice. Others see illegal immigrants as a menacing presence and a burden on services (NPR). Congress will revive debate this spring, discussing measures to bring current illegal immigrants into the mainstream and stem the flow of future illegals through tougher border- and work-enforcement measures. President Bush revived his campaign for an overhaul of immigration legislation today in a speech at the Arizona-Mexico border.

There is a harder edge to comprehensive reform legislation emerging this year from the White House and lawmakers who had been moderate on the issue. The White House, which has repeatedly called for a “rational middle ground” on immigration, earlier this year sent Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez to meet with Republicans in Congress to forge a compromise. It then floated new proposals that include making a path to citizenship more costly and difficult (HChron) for current illegal immigrants than previous proposals it supported. Separately, the bipartisan STRIVE Act (PDF) proposed last month in the House of Representatives would give illegal aliens who arrived before June 2006 a chance to apply for a six-year work visa, once they pay a fine and submit to background checks. The bill has a “touchback” (Bloomberg) provision, requiring them to leave the country and reenter legally, allowing backers to say they are not supporting an amnesty. The administration proposal, not final yet, also has a touchback clause.

But for Gordon H. Hanson, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, many of the new proposals are missing the point. Hanson argues in a new Council Special Report that for immigration policy to be successful it must mimic the way illegal immigration functions—that is, offer employers a flexible way to adapt to labor needs. He suggests, for example, that the Department of Homeland Security permit the creation of global temp agencies, with U.S. employers posting ads for jobs for foreign workers. He also recommends a flexible new visa program that would allow guest workers to move between jobs, adding “Without mobility between employers, guest workers would lack the attractiveness of illegal laborers.” In a similar vein, CFR Fellow Shannon O’Neil writes in a recent op-ed that demographic trends in the United States warrant an immigration system that includes “an efficient guest-worker program that rises and falls with labor needs.”

Perhaps it is such basic economics that will undermine an illicit business that nets ten to fifteen billion dollars a year (Virginia Quarterly Review). Bruce Fein, a former Reagan administration justice official, points to the broader problem of America’s “moral ambivalence” over illegal immigrants currently in the country. Fein said in a recent CFR.org Online Debate that “flirtation with legalization” should begin only after measures have been put in place to stem the ongoing flow.

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