STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: Let's talk about current proposals for immigration reform that are now pending. What should we do about the almost eight to nine million illegal immigrants who currently reside in the United States? Is deportation of all them really a viable option?
What would we do if we decided to legalize them-- give them political amnesty so they could stay here? Should we acknowledge their presence and adjust their status to be able to reflect the reality that they are here, and they're not really going to be able to leave?
But if we do reward their illegal conduct by giving them amnesty, is that going to be penalizing both people who have been waiting patiently in line outside the United States for real green cards, and rewarding those who have conducted illegal conduct to get here in the first place? Those are some of the issues pending before Congress and the administration today. Let's talk about some of their proposals.
First, the one by President George W Bush-- as a former governor of Texas, he certainly knows immigration issues. He has a strong interest in this issue. Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, he and Mexican President Vicente Fox were very actively engaged in negotiating a concept for a temporary worker program that would have given temporary legal status to people in the United States here illegally, and allow them to work in the United States. His program would have been a model for other similarly situated nationalities besides Mexico.
The details of the program, however, were not close to being finalized. And then we had the terrorist attacks of September 11, which temporarily shelved that initiative. Now that initiative is back on the agenda.
Let's talk in more details about the Bush proposal. In January, 2004, President Bush came out with a statement of principles proposing a new temporary worker program that would match willing foreign workers with willing US employers. The program would be open both to people outside the United States coming in, and to those who are already in the United States working illegally.
It's based on several economic principles. First, President Bush wants to protect the homeland by controlling our borders. He would make sure that any program would work with other countries so that their nationals would participate in the program voluntarily and legally. He insists that this would support ongoing efforts to enhance our homeland security.
Next, his proposal would say, let's match a willing worker with a willing employer. When in the US, worker is available and willing to take a job, and a US employer can't find a US worker, let's match them up. It would take those people both here in the United States, and allow them to work legally, as well as letting other people come in from overseas.
His program also argues that he would promote compassion. It would grant currently working undocumented aliens a temporary worker status to prevent exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Participants would be granted a temporary worker card that would allow them to travel back and forth between their home country and the United States, without fear of being denied reentry into the United States.
His program would also provide an incentive for people to return eventually to their home. It would be a temporary worker program, not a green card. He proposes that initially, the workers would have three periods to work in the United States. It might be renewable, but eventually, he would say they would have to go back to their home country. During the temporary worker program, his proposal would allow movement across the United States and back easily.
President Bush also wants to promote the rights of legal immigrants. He would say that if people want to try for a green card, they can through this program. But his proposal would not actually increase the numbers of green cards available to workers in the United States. Therefore, it would not give undocumented workers an extra advantage over those who have followed our rules. Pro-immigration advocates argue that the Bush proposal does not go far enough to reform our national immigration policy, particularly because it fails to provide a clear path to permanent residency for immigrants brought into the United States under the temporary guest worker program.
Proposal also fails to propose reforms to the severely limited financial, educational, and medical resources currently available to immigrants. Restrictionists argue that the proposal to grant temporary status to immigrants who entered the United States illegally will only provide an incentive for more immigrants to cross illegally into the United States in anticipation that there are future amnesty programs that might be enacted. Moreover, restrictionists argue the proposed temporary worker visa category on the ground that it will increase the competitive effects of immigration on US workers. So that's the Bush proposal.
There's also a democratic proposal. Actually, there are many bills pending in Congress introduced by Democrats and others. Probably the leading bill is called the SOLVE Act, which stands for Safe Orderly Legal Visas and Enforcement Act.
This is an alternative to the Bush proposal that would change immigration policy. It places a greater emphasis on family reunification programs than the Bush proposal. It calls for a legalization program for those who have documented US work histories. It would also have a new, non-immigrant, skilled worker program.
Proposal would also repeal many of the restrictionist proposals and laws enacted by Congress in the last several years, particularly that make people unlawful in the United States. The legislation basically covers three areas-- earning legal adjustment for those who are working in the United States, amnesty for those who are here already, and faster and better family reunification proposals that would allow people to be in the United States with their families.
The third major proposal now pending in Congress is called the Ag Jobs Bill, which stands for Agricultural Jobs Opportunity Benefits and Security Act of 2003. This is a proposal that is not trying to reform all of immigration, but rather just addresses the problem of agricultural workers in the United States, over 50% of whom are undocumented Latinos. The illegal status of a majority of agricultural workers in this country discourages them from speaking up and engaging in the labor rights that they have. The bill proposes that if we give them legal status, they will then use the basic civil rights to go after unscrupulous attorneys.
The legislation has two parts-- first, a legalization part that would allow people to apply for temporary residency based on past work experience, and also give them the possibility of getting permanent residency if they continue to work in the agricultural sector. Second major part of the Ag Jobs Bill would make revisions to the current temporary agricultural guest worker visa category known as the H2A category. The bill would revise this category to try to simplify some of the bureaucratic process and red tape that current applicants have to go through.
If the Ag Jobs Bill passed, 500,000 undocumented agricultural workers in the United States would be able to apply for legalization. That sounds like a lot. But it's not nearly as many as the eight to nine million people that currently reside in the United States illegally from other countries.
Those are the three main proposals now pending in Congress. The question remains, would any of those proposals really resolve the problem of illegal immigration once and for all? Not really.
You have to consider that there's both a demand and the supply side to immigration. Policies that only try to restrict people from entering the United States are only one-half of the equation. If we have more enforcement along the border, but then don't do anything about people once they enter the United States, employers will continue to hire them. We
Also have to consider the fact that we need to address the root causes of why people come to the United States. A lot of these have to do with the fact that they don't have economic opportunities in their own country. If we gave foreign aid, for example, in significant amounts to Mexico over the next 10 to 15 years to beef up its own economy, there will be a lot less pressure for people to leave Mexico to come to the United States.
A number of people have criticized the current immigration proposals now pending in Congress. For example, the President of the AFL-CIO condemns the Ag Jobs Bill because he believes that just simply condones the exploitation of immigrants for their cheap labor. That's cultivating a permanent underclass of workers who are denied their full democratic rights.
Anthropologist and journalist David Moberg argues that demand-side reforms are necessary to increase the efficiency and efficacy of our federal immigration policy. He believes we need to have better enforcement of federal labor laws to make sure that people have full access to their labor rights. The absence of such reforms means that employers will continue to have the upper hand and controlling docile workers.
Finally, it's important to note that the problem of illegal immigration is not purely numerical or even economic. We have to consider the political and social rights of immigrants coming to this country. They have to have the full panoply of rights, just as US citizens do, to be able to participate fully in our democracy.
So as I've described earlier in this study room, there is convincing evidence that immigrants make an annual contribution in a positive sense to the US economy. And they offer substantial promise and hope for contributing to our economy in other ways as well, too. As long as political policies continue to fail to provide immigrants with their full labor and other rights, any immigration policy that we try to enact through Congress is going to fail.
So what are we going to do? What kind of policy would work if we wanted to have an effective immigration system? I believe that the key elements of any effective immigration reform include the following-- first, we need earned legalization. We need to create legal channels for undocumented immigrants and their family members already in the United States to come forward out of the shadows so they can register with the government, obtain work permits, learn English, and earn their way to citizenship.
We also need to have a new kind of worker visa program to replace the current unauthorized flow of immigrants with a legal flow of needed workers, and a way that enforces effective worker protections, and provides a path to citizenship for those who want to become full members of our society. We also need to reform our family immigration system. Right now, the backlogs on family immigration are so long that too many people enter illegally just to be together with their loved ones.
We need to reduce those backlogs. The Bush plan fails to reflect and reform the criteria for family reunification. The lengthy backlogs just make it worse for people, not easier.
We also need to have smarter enforcement along our borders. We need to be able to work with other countries so that we can make sure that every country is sending us people who've been properly screened. That will increase our national security.
In addition, by having legalization, we can vet the people who come forward so we know who they are, and they come out of the shadows, and into a full society. If we legalize the current population in the United States, that will reduce a lot of problems that we currently have, and make sure that enforcement is better instituted in the future. We'll have to wait and see if Congress ultimately enacts any immigration reform proposal, and, if so, whether it will contain the ingredients to be successful.
Based on past experience, the prognosis for any immigration reform proposal to be enacted is iffy at best. The chances that any new law would actually succeed in curbing illegal immigration are slim to none until we deal with the demand side of the equation, particularly by increasing foreign aid to other countries such as Mexico.
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Immigration is a key controversy in the United States:
Does immigration help or hurt the U.S. economy?
Do immigrants take jobs from U.S. native born workers or create new jobs?
Should we restrict immigration or allow more people to immigrate?
What should we do about the estimated 8-9 million undocumented noncitizens now living in the United States?
This CyberTower room will familiarize you with the key historical, policy and legal issues to allow you to engage intelligently in this debate.
The stakes involved are high and often presented as mutually exclusive entities; jobs for natives vs. non-natives; the value of cultural diversity vs. the pressure for assimilation; the debate over whether immigration helps or hurts the United States.
This video is part 5 of 6 in the Us versus Them series.