By Robert Schlesinger |
As recently as nine months ago, this week's bipartisan breakthrough was beyond imagining. Now, not only is comprehensive immigration reform back on the agenda in Washington, but Republican lawmakers are equal partners in the effort. And the bill they've produced after four long months of negotiating with Democrats reflects bipartisan give-and-take on virtually every page.
The best way to understand the legislation is as a series of balances. A humane, practical answer for 11 million unauthorized immigrants is balanced by tough-minded determination to secure the border and enforce the rule of law. The nation's traditional commitment to family-based immigration is balanced by recognition of our growing need for foreign workers, skilled and unskilled. There is a path to citizenship, but not a special or automatic path. And a broad range of larger goals – enforcement-related and humanitarian – are balanced by cost concerns.
It's noteworthy when lawmakers manage to find one legislative sweet spot, let alone dozens in a single bill. And this package is an impressive achievement, to be welcomed by all Americans, whatever their politics, who understand how poorly the existing immigration system serves the nation's interests – economic interests, security interests, the rule of law and our heritage as a nation of immigrants.
The one piece the gang of eight didn't get quite right can be improved as the bill makes its way through the legislative process. The senators recognized, wisely, that any overhaul must go beyond the millions of unauthorized immigrants living and working in the United States. The heart of reform is fixing the legal immigration system so it works for America in the future.
No one – not members of Congress and not the American public – wants to have to revisit immigration reform in ten or 15 years. No one wants the bill they pass this year to produce another 11 or 12 or 20 million unauthorized immigrants.
How to avoid it? Border security can help. So can worksite enforcement – an effective electronic employment verification system. But the best, most effective antidote to illegal immigration is a legal immigration system that works: mostly critically, a temporary worker program for less-skilled immigrants who come to the U.S. to fill jobs when there are no able and willing American workers. The gang of eight's less-skilled worker-visa proposal is well-crafted: a break-the-mold, 21st century program that's user-friendly for employers and provides ample protections for workers, foreign and American.
The problem: It's much too small – less than half the size it needs to be, perhaps less than a third. In the early 2000s, when the economy was booming, several hundred thousand unauthorized workers entered the country every year to fill low-skilled jobs. And if the new visa program is not ample enough, it will not succeed in replacing this illegal flow with a legal workforce.
Over the next two or three decades, will less-skilled immigration to the United States be largely legal or largely illegal? The gang of eight has framed the question. Now it's up to Congress to get the answer right.
About Tamar Jacoby Fellow at the New America Foundation
Mark Krikorian Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies
Luis Alvarado Political Analyst for CNN Español and Telemundo
Lisa Garcia Bedolla Chair of the Center for Latino Policy Research