The Senate passed an immigration bill last week with border security, guest worker, and legalization provisions. Now the issue presumably goes to conference committee. But the initial word is that House Republicans, who passed a border security measure last December, are not inclined to go along.
They've evidently been hearing a lot of negative things about the legalization (=amnesty?) provisions, and it's beginning to sound like the deal I suggestedgive every side a lot of what they wantmay not work.
John Fund of the Wall Street Journal has a particularly interesting take on the issue. He focuses on the proposal unveiled last week by Congressman Mike Pence, the head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, for a bill with border security provisions and a guest worker program that would be administered by private sector firms. This is based on a proposal by Helen Krieble of the Krieble Foundation, who has a business in Colorado that hires (legal) immigrants. Here's the nub of his proposal:
Private worker placement agencies that we could call "Ellis Island Centers" will be licensed by the federal government to match willing guest workers with jobs in America that employers cannot fill with American workers. U.S. employers will engage the private agencies and request guest workers. In a matter of days, the private agencies will match guest workers with jobs, perform a health screening, fingerprint them and provide the appropriate information to the FBI and Homeland Security so that a background check can be performed, and provide the guest worker with a visa granted by the State Department. The visa will be issued only outside of the United States.
Pence's proposal has no legalization provisions.
Interestingly, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, who will dominate the House members in conference committee, says he is absolutely against any legalization proposal, but would consider a guest worker plan. This suggests that the Pence/Krieble proposal, or something like it, could emerge from conference committee.
I have several reactions. First, I tend to dislike guest worker provisions. The United States has always held out the prospect of citizenship to legal immigrants, with the single exception of the 1943-64 Bracero Program (which granted temporary legal status to migratory Mexican farm laborers), and that prospect has helped to stimulate assimilation. In contrast, Germany for many years allowed Turkish guest workers in, but until recent years did not let them or their children or grandchildren become citizens (the Social Democratic government changed that). As a result, Turks tended to live apart from Germans, in two separate and potentially hostile communities. Not an ideal situation; not very American.
On the other hand, there is an argument for guest workers, particularly in seasonal businesses like agriculture. One of the anomalies of our current situation is that stepped-up border enforcement over the last decade has meant that Mexicans illegally in the country have not gone back after seasonal work is over but have stayed on. The result is that in the Central Valley of California you have the seemingly contradictory phenomena of fast-rising population and high unemployment. This is the backdrop for the complaints about illegal immigration made by the articulate and ever-interesting classicist and Fresno County native Victor Davis Hanson. Democratic Rep. Howard Berman has worked hard and on a bipartisan basis over many years to construct an agricultural guest worker program acceptable to growers, farm workers unions, and other concerned parties. So a guest worker program might not be so bad after all.
Third, I like the way that Pence/Krieble uses private sector contractors. Government, alas, is not very good at using information technology, and CIS (formerly INS) has been one of the least effective government bureaucracies. I have emphasized to people on all sides of the immigration issue that we need to free up information technology for both border enforcement and employer verification from government procurement rules. Government doesn't seem able to procure IT very well, perhaps because Moore's Law moves faster than responses to Requests for Proposals.
Fourth, Pence/Krieble is probably not acceptable to supporters of the McCain/Kennedy model that prevailed in the Senate over Kyl/Cornyn; the former allowed illegal immigrants to petition for legal status while still in this country while Kyl/Cornyn required them to go back to their countries of origin. Backers of McCain/Kennedy argued that this was unrealistic; they would just stay. Butand here I'm doing the equivalent of thinking out loud, standing ready to be enlightened further by people who know more about these things than I doif employer verification were actually effective, then employers of illegal immigrants would lay them off or the illegal workers themselves would fade away. I suspect that labor markets in which there are a lot of illegal immigrants are pretty fluid, with lots of people entering and leaving payrolls all the time. If that's right, effective employer verification would encourage illegal immigrants to leave. If they did return to their country of origin, and if there were an effective Pence/Krieble process in place that would enable them to get legal jobs in the U.S., a lot of them might have an incentive to return home.
I hear opponents of the Senate bill claiming that the employer verification in it will be no more effective than in the 1986 immigration act. Maybe it won'tbut is it possible to construct effective employer verification procedures? I should think it's not beyond the realm of possibility. Advocates of a comprehensive billborder security plus guest workersmight do well to come up with provisions that Sensenbrenner will accept as effective, and that will convince at least some backers of McCain/Kennedy that illegal immigrants' jobs will vanish here and, in that case, that they'll be better off returning to the country of origin. The more effective employer verification isand the more effective border security isthe less need we will have of legalization provisions. Maybe there's a way forward here.
In the meantime, it seems that backers of the House bill have become convinced, at least for the moment, that there's more political downside in backing a compromise with the Senate bill than in blocking action altogether by refusing to agree on anything but border security. I'm not sure that's right: I think failure to act on border security, which after all is a pretty basic function of government, will rebound negatively on most incumbents.
One more note on John Fund's article. He notes that Utah Republican Chris Cannon, who has backed legalization provisions, faces an opponent who is attacking him on this issue in the June 27 primary. Fund thinks Cannon has a real chance of losing (I tend to agree, from afar) and that if he does, House Republicans are going to be adamant in rejecting anything but border security. The timing is scary. The results of the primary will be known on Wednesday, June 28; on Sunday, July 2, Mexico votes for president. A visible rejection of guest worker and legalization programs in the last days of the Mexican campaign could work to the benefit of leftist PRD candidate Manuel Lopez Obrador and against centrist PAN candidate Felipe Calderon, who overtook Lopez Obrador in the polls about a month ago. Calderon, like incumbent President Vicente Fox, also of the PAN party but from a different wing, will not take stands uniformly to our liking. But Lopez Obrador could be much more dangerous. I would hate to see House Republicans tip the Mexican election to Lopez Obrador.