The rhetoric throughout many congressional campaigns was hot. Some of the newly elected members of the House committed to an agenda that would reduce the number of immigrants – both legal and illegal – and send packing all those who are here illegally. Will those campaign promises define the agenda of the 112th Congress?
Democrats and Republicans – and indeed most people around the country – seem to agree on one central fact: our immigration system is broken. Families are broken up by the multi-year waiting lines for legal immigration – employers of both skilled and unskilled workers have difficulty finding that one particular scientist to fit in a research team, or teams of seasonal workers to harvest crops and serve tourists.
Meanwhile, many employers of workers who entered or stayed in the country illegally are able to take advantage of their workers’ status by offering low pay, demanding long hours, and maintaining unsafe working conditions. The ability of these employers to undercut wage, hour, and safety laws drags down the pay and benefits of other workers on the same rung of the employment ladder, including those born in the U.S. The system is broken – it needs to be fixed.
The disagreement comes in describing the fix. Should the objective be to seal off the country, scan the documents of every person within U.S. borders, and deport all those who don’t make the cut? Should the objective be to re-examine U.S. relations with our neighbors to the South, to determine the extent to which NAFTA and other trade agreements and practices have contributed to the pressures for immigration northward? Should the objective be to address the practical problems in the immigration system itself, to repair what can be repaired?
The new Congress will probably land somewhere in that third objective – fix what needs to be fixed. Which begs the question: what needs to be fixed? FCNL has urged that the legal immigration itself be repaired, to reduce the long lines for visas, to re-unite families and to reduce the pressure for immigration outside the legal system. At the same time, FCNL has encouraged enforcement of wage, hour and safety laws in all places of employment, regardless of the legal status of the workers there. If employers are
(1) able to find workers (fix the legal system) and
(2) unable to
- pay their workers less than minimum wage, or
- forego paying them at all, or
- require more than forty hours of work without overtime pay, or
- require work in unsafe conditions
then the employers’ incentive to reach beyond available U.S. workers to find “imported labor” evaporates. Enforcement of existing “worker protection” laws levels the playing field.
Rep. Lamar Smith, the new chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has said that his priorities for immigration will center on job creation and job protection. He will focus on workplace enforcement, consider an expansion of the E-Verify program, and step up enforcement of requirements on employers to hire only workers with appropriate documentation. (The E-Verify program is a digital system that would permit employers to check Social Security records immediately to determine whether a job applicant has a valid Social Security number. FCNL and others have opposed broad implementation of the program because of the high incidence of errors in Social Security records, and the fact that most of those errors occur with non-European names.)
Most immigration bills – and indeed, several other bills – in the past several years have included increased and intensified border enforcement. Now that the military and detention industries have entered that arena, it is reasonable to expect that there will be continued upward pressure for more detention space (offered by contractor Corrections Corporation of America) and more military-style hardware and technology at the border (offered by the major weapons manufacturers.) Spending for border security will likely be exempted from concerns about deficit spending, as the Department of Homeland Security is usually lumped in with the Pentagon in the rhetoric about cutting all discretionary spending – except for “security spending.”
One important signal about the coming agenda is the appointment of Rep. Elton Gallegley of California as the chair of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration. Firebrand Steve King of Iowa was in line for the post and was widely rumored to be the next subcommittee chair; but Chairman Smith chose a more moderate member, one who has not been a prime champion of some of the more extreme rhetorical demands, such as ending birthright citizenship.
Can we expect anything that will actually fix the system? President Obama, meeting with the leadership of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he would address immigration reform in the State of the Union address. He still wants to seek reforms in the immigration system. The nation needs answers to current problems such as the millions of people living in the U.S. now without appropriate documentation. Rational solutions to that problem and others may be proposed – but they will very likely be coupled (as they have been in the past) with increased border enforcement and employer-based enforcement.
Will the Dream Act resurface? Possibly, in a modified form. Some of the modifications introduced late in the debate last year already severely limited any financial assistance that non-citizen students might receive under the act – those limitations, at least, would return. A more worrisome development would be the elimination of the education option entirely. Military recruiters still strongly support the bill, and would not be unhappy to see the education path eliminated.