At stake in the immigration reform battle is what America will look like in the 21st century. It will decide who is in the country legitimately, and who will be legitimately allowed to come into the country over the next several decades.
It's not the first kind of battle of its kind. The most recent immigration reform bill, passed in 1986, wasn't fully comprehensive. And before that, there were huge immigration battles in the 1960s, in the 1920s and even further back in the 1880s.
The devil is always in the details when it comes to legislation. The bipartisan group working on the Senate bill — dubbed the "Gang of Eight" and comprising Democratic Senators Michael Bennet, Dick Durbin, Robert Menendez and Chuck Schumer, and as well as Republicans Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Marco Rubio — released their proposal on April 17. But no matter what we know so far about the proposal of the Gang of Eight, there will be a separate bill adopted in the House of Representatives. It will undoubtedly be far weaker than what the Gang of Eight came up with in the Senate, and those bills will then have to be reconciled and then signed into law by the president.
This is only the beginning of what will be a long process that will go on through the spring and summer and probably into the fall. What we now know about this so-called Senate compromise bill is that it's going to be heavy on border security. It will delay the process by which those who are undocumented in the country will be able to establish their legal status, and even citizenship, a minimum of 10 years. So in the first 10 years, there will be beefed-up border security, more requirements and more spending by the government, which already spends an already enormous sum — $17.9 billion was spent last year alone — on border security in the United States. And according to Congress, the border will have to be 100 percent under surveillance, and there will have to be triggers before anyone can then be moved onto permanent residency status — not citizenship.
Why are they holding that up by 10 years? The real reason is that Democrats and some of the proponents of immigration reform don't want the cost — for instance, of health insurance for those undocumented immigrants who gain permanent residency status — to scuttle whatever legislation comes forward. One of the things they don't want to admit is that because Congress only projects 10-year budgets, delaying for 10 years will temporarily bury any costs associated with immigration reform. That's why they're willing to accept an inordinately long period for the undocumented to become even permanent residents.
Then, there's the question of when they will actually become citizens. The other dark secret about immigration reform is that two-thirds of all the undocumented in the United States come from one country: Mexico. It's been suggested that people go to the back of the line, but there are currently people in Mexico who have been waiting 20 years to be admitted into the country. It's the longest line in the world. Two-thirds of the undocumented would have to get to the back of a 20-year line to be admitted into the United States, and many undocumented Mexican immigrants may be waiting 25 or 30 years, unless the government also increases the country caps for countries that have the longest lines.
The other complex issue that's going to be in this bill is that of who gets to come into the country in the future and how. There will be three provisions for labor flow. One will be for farm workers and another will be for other unskilled workers, such as hotel and service workers. And then there will be a provision for those who come in with professional technical skills under what are called the H-1B visas. Each of these will have sharp increases in the number of people admitted.
As many as 200,000 people will be admitted in the low-skill categories and sponsored by their employers. But then the question becomes: If you're sponsored by an employer, do you have portability? In other words, if you come in sponsored by one employer, do have to stay with that employer in order to stay in the country, or can you move your visa from one employer to another? What kind of job protections will you have? What kind of minimum wages will you be subjected to? The same thing will apply for the farm workers.
Right now there are about 85,000 people allowed into the country every year under professional, skilled or scientific visas, the H-1B workers. The business community and Silicon Valley want to eliminate all caps on these visas and bring in as many highly educated people as possible. They want to change American immigration policy from "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free," to "Give me your well-educated, those who can afford to pay either to come to a graduate school in the United States to get a quick visa into the country for permanent status or who can just basically pay their way into the country," and so, "Give me your affluent and your well-educated." If the proposed Senate bill is any indication, they may get their wish: the bill lifts the current cap on H-1B visas to 110,000, and that number is permitted to rise to as high as 180,000 in future years; it also increases the number of STEM field exemptions from the cap to 25,000. The numbers that are decided on in the final bill will have a real impact on what future immigration flow into the country will look like.
There are also small side issues, such as the several thousand children that are now in foster care because their parents were deported. They are American citizens. When the final bill is signed, will their parents be allowed to come back into the country to reunite with them?
This immigration bill is not only about undocumented immigrants, but also about these other questions. The bill that's ultimately passed into law will determine the future composition of the United States in the 21st century.
This article was adapted from an April 11 appearance by the author on Democracy Now (democracynow.org).
Fear of the Foreigner: A Brief History of United States Immigration Legislation
The United States is a nation of immigrants, but federal immigration laws have frequently been marked by a deep ambivalence toward newer arrivals.
1882 – The Immigration Act – The first comprehensive federal immigration law called for the return of convicts, “idiots,” “lunatics” and persons unable to care for themselves to their countries of origin. The new federal system was funded by a tax of fifty cents on each immigrant. In the same year, Congress approved the Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively ended Chinese immigration to the United States for 80 years.
1891 – The Immigration Act – The 1891 Immigration Act amended the 1882 act to also exclude immigrants considered to be polygamists, to have contagious diseases, and those “likely to become a public charge.” It also called for the deportation of any immigrants who fit these categories within one year of their entry. A congressional report at the time concluded that “at least 50 percent of the criminals, insane and paupers of our largest cities … are of foreign birth.”
1917 – Immigration Act – This law introduced for the first time a post-entry criminal conduct basis for deportation. It called for otherwise legal residents to be deported if they committed “a crime involving moral turpitude” within five years of their arrival. The Supreme Court upheld this language in 1951, ruling that it is not “void for vagueness” and it remains in use.
1921 – Emergency Quota Act – This was the first immigration law that established a quota system based on nationality. It limited immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 3 percent of the number of persons from that country living in the United States based on the 1910 census.
1952 – The Immigration and Nationality Act – Passed at the height of the McCarthy Era, this measure organized immigration statutes under one section of law, and included harsh provisions that limited judicial review of deportation cases and eliminated many statutes of limitation for deportation. It was co-authored by Rep. Francis Walter, who argued that “thousands of criminals and subversive aliens are roaming our streets, a continuing threat to the safety of our people.” The House and Senate passed the bill overwhelmingly, but President Truman vetoed it as “unnecessarily severe.” His veto was overridden.
1965 – The Immigration and Nationality Act – This measure signed into law by President Johnson abolished the old quota system for immigrants, but put in place a new quota of 120,000 for the Western Hemisphere. The new system generated a backlog of immigrants from Latin America that continues to this day.
1986 – Immigration Reform and Control Act – This act created a requirement for employers to verify whether employees are authorized to work in the United States, and “legalized” almost 3 million people. In order to be eligible for amnesty, undocumented immigrants first had to turn themselves in for deportation proceedings.
1996 – Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act – President Clinton signed into law the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). The new rules retroactively expanded the criminal grounds for deportation, created mandatory detention for many immigrants, and authorized more state and local law enforcement participation in immigration enforcement.
Adapted from “Deportation Nation: A Timeline Of Immigrant Criminalization” by Renée Feltz and Stokely Baksh, DeportationNation.org.
For more, see:
Dreaming Out Loud, by Michael Gould-Wartofsky
Fighting for a Place to Call Home, by Michael Gould-Wartofsky
Culture Clash: Confronting Nativists in the Jersey Suburbs, by Marty Kirchner