The Senate Immigration Plan Is a Turkey: An Unbiased Primer

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If you step back and think about resolving our immigration woes, two guiding principles spring to mind: A policy that thwarts the basic economic needs that have empirically made immigrants willing to break the law is bound to fail. Immigration policy must also be clearly enforceable. The bipartisan immigration bill being debated in the Senate this week defies both of these common sense assumptions.

The bill would create two new classes of visa. The Y visa is a “guest worker” visa. It would be valid for 2 years and renewable up to three times, but the worker would have to leave the United States for a full year before renewing. The Z visa offers pay-to-play amnesty to employed illegal immigrants: To obtain the 4-year renewable visa, immigrants must pay a $5,000 fine and a $1,500 processing fee for a criminal background check. If they had $6,500 lying around, they wouldn’t be risking their lives to cross the border, now would they?

David Leopold of the American Immigration Lawyers Association put it this way: “What’s the incentive for somebody to leave and come back? The more complex it is, the more difficult it will be for people to qualify, which will lead to the same sort of unsolvable illegal population problem that we have now.”

The Senate bill would also restructure the system for determining who gets a visa. Currently, would-be immigrants move to the front of the line if they have family in the United States or are sponsored by a specific employer. Under the new plan, immigrants would earn points for job skills, education, and English proficiency. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi objects that the change would undermine “family unification principles which have been fundamental to American immigration.”

The plan may be mean, but it’s not mean in a self-serving way because it probably wouldn’t serve us very well. The point-system would often exclude hyper-qualified foreigners whom employers want not because they can pay them peanuts but because they’re the most qualified for the job. It would also hurt the immigrants who, as President Bush says, take the jobs Americans don’t want—jobs like those at Wal-Mart, Marriott, and the National Restaurant Association (groups which tellingly sponsored a recent immigration-reform dinner).

Low-wage industries likely won’t be the only ones squeezed. The point system has been rejected in the past because the government bureaucracy assigning the points wouldn’t be able to keep up with the changes in market forces. As a liberal who often believes the government can do things better than the market, I’m with the free-marketeers on this one.

The good news is, the plan has about as much chance of succeeding as a government bureaucracy has of fitting through the eye of a needle. The same employers who wanted reform in the first place are outraged—outraged—that they would be expected to verify workers’ eligibility. They might even have a point. The government wants them to reverify all workers, including U.S. citizens. That’s 145 million people. And in a test run of the system the government proposes to use, there were lots of “false alarms, with as many as 20 percent of noncitizens and 13 percent of citizens sent for follow-up visits to immigration offices.”

The Post concludes wryly:

Security mix-ups that keep travelers from boarding airplanes could pale in comparison with database problems that block Americans from their work.

Yes, we’d have the government standing in the way of Americans earning a legal living based on a system error. Now that is a really bad policy.

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