Immigration reform looks like it might really happen in US President Barack Obama’s second term. Many have tried before and failed; few ever attempted a total overhaul of a very broken system. But amid sudden political momentum, what if the laws governing foreigners’ rights to live and work on US shores could be rewritten? Who would get to stay? How tight should borders be? Which countries and industries benefit? Quartz has been asking lawyers, advocates, and business leaders what a sound migration policy in America would look like.
Even with America’s restrictive and antiquated immigration system, rooted in family and employment ties, the world’s best immigrants come and enrich our communities, replenish our cultures, start up our businesses, and serve in our military. We are fortunate to attract their young children as well, who contribute to our overall demography balance. If the nativists had their way, we would have the top–heavy and dying demography of Japan, China, or Italy, all of whom are in dangerous imbalance.
This complex issue is one where the restrictionists have seized low ground and dug in, insisting that the border be sealed before they will offer any room at all on genuine reform. In a practical sense, President Barack Obama has already performed this first step, by ratcheting up border enforcement to unprecedented levels, removing almost 400,000 unauthorized persons in each of the last two years. In addition, in the first two years of his administration, he granted discretionary relief in record low numbers, such as allowing immigrants who arrived before the age of 16 to stay. However, his 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which does allow such arrivals to gain legal status, has generously reversed course for students and young immigrants, providing them a reprieve from removal and employment authorization. While these migrants—often called DREAMers, for the failed act that sought to keep them here—still have no path to reconstitute themselves, the successful deferred-action process has provided a clear blueprint of how to evaluate, process, and move these attractive community members to full status. Five thousand DREAMers secured DACA status in the first month of the program, an extraordinary ramp-up, inasmuch as the program was announced in June 2012 and began taking applications a mere 60 days later, even as the employee union has gone to court to block its implementation.
Here, the last successful regularization, that of President Ronald Reagan in 1986’s amnesty, provides a roadmap to what is needed now. Restrictionists must accept these metrics, as we have to reach back to the early 1950s Operation Wetback—the largest deportation program ever mounted by the US—to find such a massive repatriation program. And while I am not a supporter of the imperfect and uneven e-verify process—the electronic employment verification process—even Democrats have incorporated it into reform proposals, much as the tradeoff for employer sanctions lubricated the legalization process in 1986. Thus, we know how to undertake such a massive review process, with the precedent of the 1986 evaluation program, which allowed millions of persons to come forward and apply for permission to become permanent residency. We also know how to enact such reform without being punitive or calling for “self-deportation,” even of children.
But if comprehensive immigration reform is enacted, it must have better anti-discrimination protections than have been evident as e-verify has been rolled out thus far, especially with its many false reports of ineligibility and delays. We also must create realistic numbers for immigration, as the present system has broken down so badly that even legal immigration of family members can result in waiting times of more than a decade. Once persons are found eligible, there is simply no need to park them in years-long lines. Some close family members of greencard holders, or legal permanent residents, who are from Mexico or the Philippines can wait in legal lines over a decade, due to per-country limitations, even after they have been approved. This is a cruel and intolerable form of family reunification.
Quotas on employment-based immigration have clogged these lines as well, and have contributed to job loss and relocation. No one in the US wins when a talented graduate of Caltech returns home to Wuhan after receiving an engineering degree, or when a Russian computer scientist from the University of Houston cannot find work in Houston’s petroleum industry or bring her family to join her. There should be an automatic path to employment authorization when an international student graduates with a degree from one of our colleges—not an automatic job, but a reasonable chance to compete with an available visa at the ready. Reasonable safeguards to make certain that wages are not lowered are already in place. If Congress feels that numerical limits are needed, they should be more realistic and generous. We all benefit when the best in the world compete, especially when they have graduated from our colleges and learned our language and folkways.
As with so much in life, it is the proper balance that will make these moving parts mesh properly:
· a fair and reasonable path to legal status,
· a widening of the family and employment-based pathways,
· an acknowledgement that we have ramped up border enforcement,
· a more reasonable employment verification process,
· and a means to reconsider the numbers that are buried deeply in the algorithms of immigration—so that we do not have to get super-majorities even for the re-calibrating of quotas and numerical limitations that bedevil the current process.
Immigration is too important and fundamental to let our worst angels prevail, as they did in the 1996 reforms that “reformed” the process so that it has never recovered from the nativist cure enacted by a restrictionist Congress. Notwithstanding our overall generosity, in some respects, we have the worst of all worlds because we do not regularly study and analyze ourselves and these crucial processes. The Department of Homeland Security does not keep basic data or make the data available to those who wish to examine and understand the complex process. Filing regular information requests to get basic transactional data is no way to evaluate administrative procedures or to let the sun shine on this important constitutive act.
All of us, accomodationists and restricitionists alike, are stabbing in the dark here. We have a possible opportunity to shine light on this and all the complex immigration systems. Redesigning it should not be a quarter-century task. Shame on all of us if we do not seize this moment.
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This is part of Quartz’s ongoing look at immigration reform. Previous pieces on this subject:
Welcome to America: Startups, patent holders, and iPhone programmers, please move to the front of the line
Obama could really help the US economy by pushing for more immigration
The Republicans lost the election because of their shameful record on immigration reform