Amnesty Isn't the Problem, it's our Immigration Limits

Amnesty Isn't the Problem, it's our Immigration Limits

April 11, 2010
Originally published in The San Jose Mercury News

With the passing of health care reform, immigration is in the news again — and for good reason. Even with a recession, financial crisis, incompetent government, Islamic terrorism and traffic, America is still a great place to live. That's why millions of immigrants seek to make a better life here.

But instead of welcoming the tired, poor and industrious masses, Uncle Sam offers a Byzantine legal path to immigration that excludes virtually all low-skilled workers. Illegal immigration exists because legal immigration is practically impossible.

The latest proposed immigration bill, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act of 2009, ignited a passionate battle on Capitol Hill over its amnesty provision. But why is this debate so heated?

According to the Pew Research Center, there were 10.8 million illegal immigrants in the United States in 2009. Yet illegal immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the 1920s, with some notable exceptions, the United States was a free immigration country. If you were literate and relatively healthy (and, shamefully, not Chinese), you could immigrate to the United States.

The 1921 Emergency Quota Act changed all that. As an unintended consequence, that act helped create illegal immigration by severely restricting and, in many cases, entirely removing the possibility of legal immigration.

Past amnesties, like the largest in 1986, failed to stem the flow of illegal immigrants. The anti-immigrant lobby is fond of pointing this out. What they ignore is that the flow of illegal immigrants continued because legal immigration opportunities were not expanded.

Past amnesties worked as intended. They brought millions of illegal immigrants out of the shadows and into the mainstream of American life. Yet politicians dropped the ball in 1986 by failing to create more ways to legally immigrate to the United States.

Since then, restrictionists have torpedoed real immigration reform that takes account of economic reality. The latest reform proposal is the result.

It has some merits. It increases the quota for highly skilled graduates of American universities. Its amnesty provision requires illegal immigrants to pay a fine, learn English, pass a criminal background check and jump through other hoops. Unfortunately, the bill also puts more limits on legally hiring foreigners.

A one-time amnesty that is not coupled with a path to legal residence only pushes the problem into the future. It also puts more regulatory hurdles in the path for legal low-skilled immigration.

There is a way out of this.

Most temporary work visas are sponsored by employers, who must follow a complicated and costly process to hire foreigners temporarily to fulfill needed jobs. H-1B visas, for highly skilled workers, can cost thousands of dollars per worker. The cost of the H-2 visa program for hiring lower-skilled workers is so high that it is underused. Denied the possibility of sponsoring foreign workers legally, employers turn to hiring undocumented workers.

Illegal immigration will not come under control until work visas are reformed to accommodate that reality. Four steps are needed:

  • Immigrants, not employers, should hold the visas.
  • Hiring someone with a visa should be as easy as hiring an American citizen.
  • There should be no numerical cap on the numbers of work visas issued.
  • Instead of trying to arrest busboys, fruit pickers and software engineers, U.S. immigration enforcement should focus on weeding out criminals and potential terrorists.

Legalization eliminates black markets and their attendant negative consequences. Legalizing immigration and offering an amnesty to the noncriminals here will have the same results. The 2009 bill is not the answer or much of a starting point; a real immigration reform bill is needed.