Last week’s national elections made it abundantly clear that the Latino communities and new citizens from other parts of the world have changed the equation on the issue of immigration. The impact these communities had on the re-election of Barack Obama has clearly changed the political landscape for the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform. Republicans in Congress including Speaker of the House Boehner to commentators as conservative as Sean Hannity have acknowledged that there needs to be a more humane solution than “self deportation” for the undocumented.
There are lessons to be learned from the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 under President Reagan as well as the framework of the McCain-Kennedy bill in 2005. Two more recently pressing parts of an immigration reform equation is an increased need for streamlined immigration policies for foreign nationals possessing important skills in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields and the need for a workable visa for entrepreneurs who are willing to risk everything to start innovative businesses in the U.S. if given the chance.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 created a program which legalized roughly three million immigrants but was unable to pass a provision for a reasonable temporary worker program. During the period that followed, the U.S. experienced an unprecedented economic boom with practically full employment. In the absence of a temporary worker program to fill year round work with an optional path to permanent residence, thousands if not millions of lesser skilled positions went begging. Unable to get visas, but possessing a willingness to work hard, many immigrants crossed borders or overstayed visas to fill these jobs. Opposition from those on the Democratic side of Congress to a temporary worker program was a major factor in its exclusion from IRCA and in recreating in larger numbers a vulnerable undocumented population in the U.S.
The McCain-Kennedy bill recognized the need to provide for a temporary lesser skilled worker program with pathways to permanent residence for those immigrants who remained in the workforce and chose to stay. Although this was easier to do in a better economy, it must nevertheless be part of the equation now, along with the pressing human need to legalize those presently in this country in violation of the law. Immigration legislation is hard to pass and Congress must create a bill that will work in both a full economy as well as in a recession. It almost goes without saying that a temporary worker program would need employers to establish an absence of U.S. workers for needed lesser skilled jobs and that adequate wages and working conditions be put in place to protect both U.S. workers and foreign workers who would be the beneficiaries of these visas. We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past by ignoring fluctuating needs for lesser skilled workers. The cumbersome, seasonal H-2A agricultural worker program and the H-2b worker programs are testaments to the fact that the U.S. continues to need foreign workers in non-professional positions to maintain some sectors of U.S. businesses.
Also recognized under McCain-Kennedy was the need to avoid static caps on key employment based H-1b visas as well as employment based permanent resident numbers. However, the McCain-Kennedy bill failed to address important needs regarding reforming the family-based immigration system. The long backlogs imposed on reuniting with close family members has made much of the family based categories to immigrate non-starters. Especially egregious is the imposition of waiting lists in the family based category (F-2A) for after acquired spouses and children of U.S. permanent residents. In the interests of keeping nuclear families together, this category should have no numeric backlogs and be treated identically to spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens.
These urgently needed changes cannot be held hostage by the empty phrase of “controlling our borders first.” As reported by the Pew Hispanic Center, undocumented crossings on the southern border have been greatly reduced over the past several years, possibly even to a trickle. Smart border control is important, which is why the Administration has been so effective at stopping illegal immigration. It makes no sense to continue hold up a major reform of our immigration system to what is clearly a hollow sound bite.
It is time to learn from past mistakes, oversights and congressional gridlock and finally get the job of comprehensive immigration law done.
Written by Deborah J. Notkin, Chair, Media-Advocacy Committee