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July 2009, Volume 15, Number 3

Obama: Immigration Reform?

President Obama met with 30 Congressional leaders on June 25, 2009 to begin "an honest discussion about the issues" involved in comprehensive immigration reform. Obama said the goal was to identify "areas of agreement and areas where we still have work to do, with the hope of beginning the debate in earnest later this year."

Repeating campaign promises, Obama endorsed legalization for many of the 12 million unauthorized foreigners in the US and a secure ID card aimed at preventing unauthorized workers from holding US jobs. He said: "the American people still want to see a solution in which we are tightening up our borders, we're cracking down on employers who are using illegal workers in order to drive down wages and oftentimes mistreat those workers… we [also] need an effective way to recognize and legalize the status of undocumented workers who are here."

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who earned special praise from Obama for his support of comprehensive immigration reform, called on Obama to oppose unions that want a commission to determine future flows of migrant workers. McCain said: "We don't need a commission. I can't support any proposal that doesn't have a temporary worker program."

White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, told reporters there were not enough votes to enact an immigration bill in 2009.

During the April 29, 2009 press conference that marked 100 days in office, Obama said: "We can't continue with a broken immigration system…[we will] convene a working group… to start looking at a framework of how this [immigration reform] legislation might be shaped… I see the process moving this first year [2009], and I'm going to be moving it as quickly as I can."

Most of the discussion of the June 25, 2009 meeting focused on the difficulties of having Congress add immigration reform, acknowledged to be very controversial, to a docket already filled with issues that range from health care and financial regulation to energy policy. There was also discussion of whether the President or Congress should take the lead. President Bush, who also favored comprehensive immigration reform, never produced a bill for Congress to consider.

Hearings. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), chair of the Immigration Subcommittee, held a hearing on April 30, 2009 dealing with comprehensive immigration reform. Witnesses agreed on the need for immigration reform, but their testimony highlighted disagreements over earned legalization for unauthorized foreigners and guest workers.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan observed that unauthorized foreigners accounted for a sixth of US labor force growth between 2000 and 2007 and asserted that "unauthorized immigrants serve as a flexible component of our workforce, often a safety valve when demand is pressing and among the first to be discharged when the economy falters." He urged a new temporary worker program for low-skilled foreign workers.

Greenspan also urged more H-1B visas, currently at least 85,000 a year, quoting Microsoft's Bill Gates testimony of March 2007: "America will find it infinitely more difficult to maintain its technological leadership if it shuts out the very people who are most able to help us compete." Greenspan added that admitting more skilled immigrants would put downward pressure on wages for skilled workers and reduce income inequality. He said: "we have created a privileged elite whose incomes are being supported at noncompetitively high levels by immigration quotas on skilled professionals."

Former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner emphasized that the foreign-born population rose from 10 million in 1970 to 38 million in 2007, with most of the increase occurring after 1990. She urged earned legalization for unauthorized foreigners, citing studies suggesting that legalized foreigners earn higher wages. Meissner also advocated the creation of a commission to recommend the number of immigrant and temporary worker visas to be admitted.

Unions also endorse a commission to establish the level of immigration for economic reasons, but oppose more guest workers. A union-endorsed proposal released in April 2009 would create a commission to examine the impact of immigration on the US economy and labor market and recommend to Congress the appropriate number of immigration and temporary worker visas.

Schumer, speaking in June 2009, said that any immigration reform should deal with future flows of both high- and low-skill workers. He said the high-skill program should encourage "the next Albert Einstein to emigrate permanently to the United States" and there should be a "more manageable and controlled flow of legal immigrants who can be absorbed by our economy."

May 1, 2009 rallies across the US drew few marchers to support comprehensive immigration reform, a contrast to huge crowds on May 1, 2006. In Chicago, only 5,000 people appeared, compared with 65,000 on May 1, 2008; organizers cited high unemployment and fears of swine flu for the low turnout. In Los Angeles, disagreements among organizers led to a half dozen separate marches.

Perspective. There is broad agreement that current US immigration policy is "broken," and that the status quo is bad for migrants, employers and the national interest. However, there is disagreement on how to reform US immigration laws. One major reason why the status quo persists despite widespread dis-satisfaction is that the current policy is the second-best solution for those who cannot achieve their first-best option.

Advocates for expanded immigration policies have so far failed to achieve what they want: more immigrants admitted and most of the unauthorized foreigners legalized. But the status quo allows unauthorized foreigners to establish "roots" in the US, including through US-born children, that they hope will lead to eventual legalization.

Advocates for limited immigration have also failed to achieve their goals, which include immigration limited to current levels or reduced and unauthorized foreigners encouraged to "self-deport" via implementation of federal laws such as REAL ID driver's licenses and the enactment of state and local laws that make it harder for unauthorized foreigners to find jobs and housing.

Finally, both unauthorized migrants and their employers— the two groups at the core of illegal migration— can live with the status quo. Most unauthorized migrants are able to get the higher-wage jobs they seek, and their employers are able to hire them. Unless immigration reform promises to "legalize the status quo," especially employers have little incentive to support it.

Comprehensive immigration reform has three major elements: legalization for at least some of the estimated 12 million unauthorized foreigners in the US; a secure ID to make future employment of unauthorized workers more risky for their current employers; and dealing with what are now being termed "future flows" of migrant workers. The first two elements are similar to the "three-legged stool" of the Immigration Reform and Control Act 1986, but "future flows" has replaced IRCA's additional Border Patrol agents and border control infrastructure.

Each of the three elements is complex, akin to effectively juggling three balls in the air simultaneously. The major legalization issues include how many of the 12 million unauthorized residents should be legalized and what fees, proof of eligibility, and other requirements they should meet. The major issues with secure IDs involve costs, penalties, and liability, while the contentions about "future flows" center on how to determine the "need" for additional migrant workers.

The legalization and secure ID issues have not changed significantly since these issues were debated in the Senate in 2006 and 2007. However, with unemployment significantly higher in 2009, the future flow debate has changed. Some employers, as McCain suggests, insist on a new large-scale guest worker program. However, "mainstream" reformers call for a commission to collect data and make recommendations on how many foreign workers should be admitted in the future.

Some reports suggest President Obama's selection of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court may delay any serious effort to enact immigration reform.

DREAM. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act (S 729), reintroduced in March 2009, was endorsed by a lengthening list of organizations, including the College Board, which administers the SAT and AP tests. It would allow unauthorized youth who arrived in the US before age 16, who are under 30, and who have lived in the US at least five years and graduate from high school to become probationary immigrants. If the youth further attended college or enlisted in the military for at least two years, they could become immigrants.

An estimated 65,000 unauthorized foreigners graduate from US high schools each year. If DREAM is enacted, some 360,000 high school graduates who are 18 to 24, and 715,000 who are five to 17, could be legalized.

The Pew Hispanic Center released a report in April 2009 on mixed families, those with some members who are legal and others who are illegal. Some 2.3 million families with an unauthorized adult, about 75 percent of such families, have at least one US-citizen child, and almost 400,000 such families have a combination of US citizen and non-US citizen children.

Beginning in February 2009, the Army recruited foreigners who were in the US on nonimmigrant student visas, offering probationary US citizenship on the first day of active duty. The military pays immigration fees, and regular US citizenship is available after five years of service.

The Army aimed to recruit 1,000 foreigners with health care and language skills. By May 2009, there were over 7,000 applicants, mostly foreign students in the US. Over 60 percent of these special applicants had at least a BA degree, compared to seven percent of all Army recruits. About 29,000 legal immigrants are in the military; some 8,000 enlist each year.

TPS. The Haitian government asked the US government to grant temporary protected status to Haitians in the US, citing four hurricanes that caused extensive damage in Haiti in 2008 and almost $2 billion a year in remittances from Haitians in the US. President Bush denied Haitians TPS in December 2008, when deportations resumed.

Nationals of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia and Sudan currently have TPS in the US.

Gail Russell Chaddock, "Obama urges Congress not to put off immigration reform," Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 2009. Peter Wallsten, "As Obama sets course for immigration reform, roadblock appears," Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2009. Jared Allen, "Court pick could buy time on immigration," The Hill, May 26, 2009. Alexandra Zavis and Andrew Becker, "Army extends immigrant recruiting," Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2009.

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