Opinion

Immigration reform must reflect economic realities, common sense

With White House support, the U.S. Senate is seriously debating comprehensive immigration reform this week. The central compromise of this “Grand Bargain” (S.1348) is a path to permanent residence for an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in exchange for huge cutbacks in future family-based immigration.

Although a step in the right direction, the bill should be amended to better reflect economic realities and common sense.

H-1B visa for professionals

The H-1B visa program allows Microsoft, Real Networks and Amazon, as well as mom-and-pop companies, access to the high-skills talent they desperately need. The current quota is 65,000 per year, but this year U.S. employers filed more than 123,000 H-1B petitions on the very first two days available for filing. Nearly half were rejected by lottery.

In response, the Senate tripled the government filing fees and refused to raise the H-1B quota even high enough to cover what was filed in two days. The guaranteed shortage of qualified candidates merely encourages U.S. companies to ship the jobs overseas.

Merits vs. shortages

Typically, to retain a foreign national for a permanent position under current law, U.S. employers must prove their extensive recruitment efforts and their willingness to pay the prevailing wage. Instead, the Grand Bargain proposes a “merit-based” point system to grant permanent residence based on education, skills, English language abilities, job offers and family ties, etc.

The proposed approach inadequately considers transferability of foreign skills to the U.S. market. For example, Canada’s similar approach produces significant numbers of professionals who end up taking menial jobs because the point system measures only paper credentials, not ability to contribute in real-life jobs. The proposal does not require wage protections for U.S. workers either.

Legalization

Currently, about 12 million undocumented foreign nationals live in the United States. The Grand Bargain will allow them to come out of the shadows — only to spend years in limbo. These workers must stop harvesting our fields, cleaning our hotels, and so on to return to their home countries to wait for overburdened consular officers to take time away from their terrorist-screening duties to slog through the millions of applications.

Congress should either commit to forcing these workers to leave (and pay for forcing them to do so) or commit to letting them stay. Imposing large fines — which the bill does — helps the United States and constitutes sufficient retribution for having entered without authorization. Further insisting that these workers abandon their jobs and families in the United States to process their applications overseas is like former State Senator Ellen Craswell’s proposals to castrate criminals: looks “tough,” but achieves no societal benefit.

Families

The Grand Bargain robs Peter’s family to pay Paul’s. U.S. citizens who have already been waiting for ridiculously long times (some since 1985) will finally be reunited with their long-separated family members. In exchange, U.S. citizens will no longer be allowed to obtain green cards for their married children, children over 21, or brothers or sisters. Parents of U.S. citizens will face particularly harsh limitations.

The road ahead

Opponents of comprehensive immigration reform are certainly loud — hecklers at a symphony — but independent polls show the vast majority of Americans support legalization for undocumented workers. President Bush is looking for a legacy to balance his Iraq-laden karma, and both parties desperately seek the millions of Hispanic votes the legalization program is expected to bring its supporters. With common sense changes, this bill could finally achieve the comprehensive immigration.

Cletus Weber and Elizabeth Peng are Mercer Island attorneys that specialize in immigration law. Their Web site is www.greencardlawyers.com.

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