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The Ys and Zs of Immigration

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
May 25, 2007

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One leading Republican lawmaker used an expletive (NatJournal) to describe it . Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid professed “serious reservations.”  And, in a new sign of disfavor with the White House, some conservative critics have taken to calling it the “Bush-Kennedy bill.” Such is the vessel that was intended to repair a U.S. immigration system all sides agree is broken. The Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2007 (WashPost), initially seen as a “grand bargain” involving a small bipartisan group of senators and the White House, instead has been assailed by all sides. It aims to address the country’s 12 million illegal immigrants by offering a path to citizenship that involves issuing “Z” visas to those who entered the United States before January 1, 2007. They would have to pay a fine, show English proficiency, and return to their home country to gain residency. That has been derided by foes as a de facto amnesty for law breakers. The bill also seeks to address business community concerns about labor shortages by allowing hundreds of thousands of workers to stay for two years on “Y” visas, which could be renewed twice after trips home. The original number of four hundred thousand has been cut in half (McClatchy) by both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, some of whom saw it as too onerous, and others too generous.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, involved in negotiating the bill, said critics on both sides have it wrong. Republican opponents, he told USA Today, in effect favor a “silent amnesty” by blocking the bill, while Democratic critics were prolonging the distress of immigrant families by delaying legislation that would legalize many workers. But countering the administration are many Republicans angered they were not included among the “Gang of 12” (AP) who negotiated the measure and determined to make sure border security and workplace enforcement measures take effect before any new worker or residency rules take effect. 

There have also been squabbles among usual allies at the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal editorial page on immigration. Heritage has released a new report that finds the country’s large number of low-skilled immigrants receive much more in government benefits than normal households while paying less in taxes. The Journal, however, says most new immigrants to the United States will pay at least as much in tax as they collect. A new Council Special Report by Gordon Hanson says if U.S. policymakers really intend to curtail illegal immigration they should address the economic factors that drive those flows and find ways of building flexibility into the U.S. labor market.

Presidential candidates have been treading carefully around the legislation. Democratic frontrunners Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and John Edwards have found fault with the bill’s implications for family ties and workers’ rights. The top Republican troika, meanwhile, has featured sparring involving a longtime champion of comprehensive immigration reform—Sen. John McCain—and Mitt Romney, who dismissed the new bill as amnesty in disguise. The immigration proposal will not be acted on until after the upcoming Memorial Day recess week, by which time lawmakers will no doubt have an earful of new opinion.

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