So late last month, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York introduced a comprehensive Immigration Reform bill into the US Senate. Their hope is that this bill will be debated and signed into law before the end of 2010 now that healthcare reform has been signed into law.
However US Immigration Reform will probably not be the dominant topic in Washington for a while due to the sweeping Financial Reform championed by the Obama Administration and many in Congress at the moment. This is despite the fact that US Immigration is a front of mind topic recently with the opening of H1B visa season in 2010 and more recently and prominently the Arizona Immigration Reforms just signed into law and denounced by Civil Liberty groups, Immigration Advocate Groups particularly of a Hispanic nature and even President Obama himself.
My prediction is that although President Obama is clearly a big advocate of major Immigration reforms as are many in Congress there are a couple of big reasons why I think this will take a backseat to Financial Reform in 2010. These both involve politics and the coming Midterm elections in November in 2010;
1. Financial Reform is more a politically popular topic: Democratic Members of Congress who are up for re-election this election cycle will up for some tough battles, particularly with public anger and disillusionment at Congress with unemployment still at high levels, the bailouts of Wall St. firms not benefiting the average person and both the process and specific aspects of the Healthcare reform legislation.
Democrats in particular and the Democratic President Obama need a topic to turn public focus on to something else as they go to the polls. Enter Financial Reform! A majority of Americans according to all polls are angry at the fact that Corporate America who caused the economic recession and crisis were then bailed out by the taxpayer. So it becomes very difficult for Republicans politically to oppose strong legislation to regulate the financial industry as they did somewhat successfully in the Healthcare debate.
2. Immigration Reform is a politically divisive topic: The reality is that the average Democratic leaning and Independent voter is probably not going to be swayed to vote or vote at all solely on the basis of Immigration reform. This is because for the average US citizen from a selfish point of view, will largely be unaffected by the current proposals or indeed most of the expected modifications or revisions to Immigration proposals. From the plight of Illegal Immigrants, Anti H1B visa & Foreign Worker Rhetoric, the Drug cartels and crime, etc. Republicans have a lot more easy ammunition politically to attack on this issue. Republicans also accuse Obama and Democrats of wanting to legalize illegal immigrants and increase immigration as these people tend to be more likely to vote Democrat in elections.
Now as for the Graham (R-SC) and Schumer (D-NY) legislation, there are four major tenants to their Immigration legislation proposal. These are;
– Requiring biometric Social Security cards to ensure that illegal workers cannot get job
– Fulfilling and strengthening commitments on border security and interior enforcement
– Creating a process for admitting temporary workers
– Implementing a tough but fair path to legalization for those already here (approx. 11 million illegal immigrants)
Each of these proposals in and of themselves are going to have critics on both sides for different reasons. Supposedly the nature of this initial proposal is largely supported by Obama but it is definitely going to have a tough battle so let us take each one and disect the main arguments.
1. Biometric Social Security Card: The initial idea around this is that a person’s work authorization eligibility will be stored on this card but not stored on any central Government database. Thus to allay privacy and civil liberty concerns while also making it ever more difficult for illegal immigrants to find work with the hi-tech card and heavy punishments for employers not following check procedures including potential jail time. Apart from the fact that this is not a National ID card, it certainly will have all the hallmarks of one as every US Citizen and resident will need one along with every immigrant so civil liberty groups will certainly be fighting this. Also people forge and steal passports as well as the basic social security cards today so this certainly will not stop that trade and probably just raise prices on the black market. Right now it is estimated most illegal immigrants and legal immigrants working without authorization are paying taxes. This will certainly mean that any work these people now do will be less likely include taxes. Then finally a system this hi-tech and complex will be costly and difficult to implement across all residents and employers and will certainly take a long time and no doubt be problem riddled as the current simpler optional E-Verify system is today. There have been cases where US citizens have be shown illegible to work under the current system and with this system that danger will only become more common and magnified.
2. Border Security and Interior Enforcement: As can be seen from the recent Arizona immigration laws there a diverse range of opinions as to how this should be applied. Many think that a policy whereby police and law enforcement personnel can ask a person’s immigration status should be mandatory across the country whereas others view this at best as racial profiling and at worst akin to the Nazi and Apartheid regimes where people always had to carry documents in case they were checked by officials. Then of course there are different opinions in relation to a Border Fence and constitutional rights of Immigrants.
3. Admitting Temporary Workers: So this in theory could include legislation around H1B visa and other skilled non-immigrant visas and may incorporate aspects of the Durbin-Grassley H1B visa and L1 visa legislation proposed last year or the Kerry-Lugar Business StartUp Visa legislation earlier this year , this proposed bill focuses more specifically on very hi-tech and then low-tech immigrant candidates.
Currently graduates from US universities at Masters or pHD level in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math have access (along with US Masters Graduates) to an extra 20,000 Advanced Degree cap for the H1B visa. They also more recently exclusively have access to a 17 month extension their F1 Visa OPT period which effectively gives them 2.5 years of work authorization up from the original 1 year in lieu of their degree. Currently these high skilled foreigners have access to US Permanent Residency (i.e. Green Card) via the EB-2 immigrant visa category via sponsorship from their employer. This legislation wants to streamline this process to keep these highly skilled and educated workers within the US as the most like to innovate, be entrepreneurs and create employment and wealth for the US.
As for the low-tech workers (i.e. agriculture, manufacturing, labor, etc.) there is currently no legal visa for these people to come temporarily to work in the US. So the provision would be for an changing quota for this category depending on the needs and state of the economy to allow these workers to come to the US legally and if they have been in the US for a longer period, have learned English and can demonstrate contirbution to their community, the chance also to pursue a Green Card.
4. Legalization Path for Illegal Immigrants: This is always a contentious issue but is a public debate often filled with lies and myths. The last amnesty for illegal immigrants in the US was by Ronald Reagan’s administration in 1986 so is certainly an option thought of and acted on both sides of the political spectrum. The idea in this proposal is that illegal immigrants have to admit their illegality, pay fines, do community service and any back taxes owed, learn English and then go to the back of the current immigration queue for residency in the US.
The reality of making this work is where this often becomes problematic as if a couple came here illegally and then had a child in the US (often derogatorily called an Anchor baby by Immigration opponents who accuse illegal immigrants of only having a child to help legalize their own status) who is now in school. So as per the US Constitution, any person born in the US is automatically a US citizen. Therefore in this case unless it makes sense financially, etc. a less educated illegal immigrant may not see any benefit in doing anything to make their own status legal as it would only cause them further hardship as their child already is protected as a citizen. Of course opponents believe that illegal immigrants should never be rewarded for their bad actions and even some legal immigrants who had to wait many years and pay large financial and other costs to come to the US legally oppose others coming into the same queue as them.
As an Immigrant What Should You Be Happy and Worried About?
– Well in this particular proposal the easier road to a green card for some Masters and pHD Graduates should definitely be welcome news
– For those particularly on F1 Visa, J1 Visa Work and Travel and J1 Visa Internship programs who may be working part-time elsewhere technically unauthorized to help pay their tuition fees or just living expenses in the US, this will present a significant hurdle for doing that anymore
– This also could be welcome new to low-skilled workers wanting to work in the US, however competition for these is bound to be fierce and thus these jobs will no doubt be largely minimum wage positions.
– For those on visa like the H1B visa or E3 visa and wanting to transfer between employers, I can foresee issues whereby implementation and update issues may cause false readings about eligibility to occur.
In the end taking all of this into account it will certainly be an interesting Immigration journey over the next period in the US. However because of all of this my current US Immigration prediction is that this may only be strongly debated following Financial Reform and may only be a legislative reality following the Midterm Elections and in a non-election year in 2011. Incidentally this was exactly the case when the last major Immigration reform was proposed by Senators John McCain and the late Ted Kennedy in 2007 following the 2006 Midterm elections.