The Senate and the White House have come to a deal of sorts on immigration reform. The provisions, as I understand them, are as follows:
- Temporary legalization for everyone who entered the country before January. They would then be able to apply for residency and eventually citizenship if they pay a $5000 fine and a $1500 processing fee (and pass a background check, of course).
- Beefed up border security, including new border patrols, unmanned drones, fancy fences, radar systems, etc.
- Once the border security measures are in place (anywhere from 18 months to four years), a temporary worker program will start which will bring 400,000 workers into the country for two years and then force them to leave. The Post article makes no mention of a path to apply for legal residency.
- Visas will be awarded on a "points system" that favors skilled and educated workers and English speakers instead of simply granting favor to those with family in the country.
As with all compromises, there are good things about this bill and bad things about it. The bill gives all the undocumented workers currently here a chance to come out of the shadows. I like that, and while I'm not a big fan of the expensive fine, it's still reasonable - honest workers or not, they did break the law, and a minor punishment is worthwhile. I fully expect to see a new crop of charitable organizations working to help undocumented workers pay those fines. (It'll also be a nice new source of income for our budget - if even half of the 12 million undocumented workers pays up, that's $6500 x 6,000,000 = $39 billion, or roughly a fifth of our current budget deficit.)
Second, the emphasis on skilled and educated workers can help fix some of these horror stories we hear in the academic community about grad students or professors who leave the country for a visit and can't get a visa to come back. It's good to see Congress tackle this issue.
Third, as much as I rip on the people obsessed with border security, beefing up the Border Patrol is a good thing. The Patrol is horrifyingly undermanned and has no resources to fight the actual crime that occurs on the border. The extra funds and equipment will help out a lot.
Now, the things I don't like...
First and foremost is the guest worker program. Guest workers are often tied to a certain employer - if they quit because of low pay or bad working conditions, they would have to go back to the country from whence they came. Furthermore, who actually thinks that all these guest workers will go home after two years? It's not going to work that way. A fairly significant portion of the undocumented workers in our country are visa overstayers - they simply didn't leave when their visa expired. (I think that's about two-thirds of the current undocumented population, but I'm not sure.) This simply recreates the problem we currently have. Furthermore, guest workers will be tied to their current employers, who can hold over their heads the prospect of being forcibly returned home - just like now. This seems to legally approve the underclass status of the current shadow labor force while doing nothing to ensure that all laborers, immigrant or no, are treated by the same standards.
I wouldn't mind so much if the guest worker program had an option to earn a green card after two years of work - say, if you could demonstrate English proficiency, show a tax return, pay a fee, or something - and if there were whistle-blower protections so that a worker could point out violations of labor laws in exchange for a green card. An even better system would be that a guest worker had to stay employed for two years with someone, not necessarily the company that brought the worker over the border - so the employee could leave and find another job if the employer that brought them over was sketchy.
Another problem is the limitation on unskilled workers. With the new emphasis on the educated and skilled, you'll still have unskilled workers who can't get visas and who thus have to cross illegally. Only now, many of those unskilled workers may have family here and thus be even more motivated to cross illegally. The new visa rules will not cause a decline in the number of attempted border crossers. A better solution would be to simply increase the number of overall visas and beef up the background check capability (so we're not giving visas to people who might blow us up).
I suppose I'm a little bit wary of replacing one broken system with a system that contains very visible cracks. However, a flawed solution is better than no solution at all, so I support the bill. Furthermore, the cracks in the system are very obvious and visible - they're known unknowns, if you will - and are fairly easily filled once the political will is there. It's better than the current system, and as Senator Feinstein said, no sense in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Bush will need every ounce of his infamous steamroller strength to get this bill through. He has a 29% approval rating, and the 29% who approve of him are the 29% of the population most likely to abhor the path to legalization for current illegal immigrants. He'll be smart to let the senators take the lead on this one - Kennedy is well respected by the left, and Kyl by the right. And Heaven only knows what will happen in the House, where windbags like Tancredo and Hunter will try anything to stop it. We'll see if this one comes out alive...
- On a different note, I'd like to acknowledge the death of Jerry Falwell this past week. When I was first gaining my political bearings, Falwell had already contracted the severe case of foot-in-mouth disease that plagued him during his later life, so I didn't get a sense of Falwell's actual power during the '80s and early '90s. He was still influential, mind you, but he was fading fast. Soon he became a self-parody, a laughable dinosaur, and his power was ceded to a new breed of evangelical more willing to play well with others. He was not an evil man, and as I have a policy of not celebrating the death of anyone who isn't evil, I will not rejoice.
I will mention this: we cannot understate the negative effect Falwell and his ilk had - and continue to have - on the mainstream public's impression of Christianity (especially evangelical Christianity), an effect that is only beginning to be undone by warmer, fuzzier leaders like Rick Warren. On a personal level, Falwell and his ally, fellow Virginian Pat Robertson, were enough to give me an almost hateful view of evangelical Christianity that persisted until I met an an actual, loving, caring evangelical Christian. There are many people out there whose view of evangelical Christianity is shaped by people like Falwell, and this is unfortunate. While Falwell preached that the secularists and non-Christians were destroying our society, he obscured the true nature of evangelical Christianity to those who he was railing against. I'm afraid this sharp division characterized by mutual distrust between non-Christians and conservative evangelicals will be Falwell's most enduring legacy.