Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Rational Immigration Reform, Part II

This is the second part in a series on immigration reform. The first part appeared yesterday. The third part will appear tomorrow evening.

So, there is a problem. Is there a solution? Several have been proposed.

  1. Enforce the current laws, and deport illegal aliens.
    With most estimates putting the number of illegal aliens above ten million, it is difficult to see how this could be tenable. Nonetheless, this is the solution proposed by H.Con.Res.221, H.R.3693, H.R.3938, and H.R.4079. Perhaps the immigration laws should have been enforced more rigorously, but the time for that has passed. Similarly, we cannot deny illegal aliens treatment in emergency rooms, both because of the public health issues that would create and the mandate of emergency rooms to treat anyone who walks through the door. If emergency rooms cannot ask for proof of insurance, requiring them to ask for proof of citizenship would create a logistical nightmare. We also cannot exclude the children of illegal aliens from our public schools. For one, it is fundamentally unjust to punish these children for the actions of their parents—few if any of the children chose to come to this country illegally. For another, if they are here, and remain here, it is much better for them to have a basic education than to doom them to illiteracy, which increases the likelihood that they will eventually turn to a life of crime.
  2. Grant citizenship to all illegal aliens currently in the country.
    This solution does not have much traction outside of the Latino community, and even there its support is nowhere near unanimous. I list it here because I have heard it suggested, especially by members of the illegal alien community who feel that they are by rights citizens. This ignores the facts that:
    1. They entered this country illegally; and
    2. Many people who have entered legally have followed the rules, waited longer, and do not deserve to see those who have flouted the law jump ahead of them in the queue for citizenship.
  3. Grant illegal aliens legal status short of citizenship.
    This is a more reasonable approach, though proponents of this solution still differ on how best to implement it.

The problem of illegal aliens is not simply one of what to do with those people who are here illegally now. There is a larger problem of preventing future illegal entry into the country. Consequently, I would like to build on the third type of solution, while also addressing the broader problem.

I will begin with how to reconcile the ten million or so illegal aliens currently living in the United States. First, we must parameterize what is and is not acceptable. I believe it is fair to say that anyone here illegally who has committed a felony must be deported. It is also fair to say that a person in this country illegally cannot be granted immediate citizenship (barring acts of Congress, of course). I would go further and say that illegal aliens cannot be granted permanent residence status as their first legal status. This has the same fairness problem as granting them immediate citizenship, given that there are many people who have followed the rules and are waiting for permanent resident status.

This implies that whatever legal status we give illegal aliens, it must be temporary. Further, it should not have a shorter waiting period for permanent resident status than the status of those who enter the country legally. Consequently, upon attaining legal status a person should have to wait at least as long to become a permanent resident as someone who entered the country legally with similar status. It is not unreasonable to add an additional one year penalty to this wait time, as well as any typical wait time experienced by people applying for visas through normal channels.

As for the specific status, there are existing visa categories for foreign workers, both skilled and unskilled. The principal argument for allowing illegal aliens to stay is that they are gainfully employed and contributing to society. An illegal alien who can demonstrate that he or she has a job and is paying taxes should be able to get a temporary worker visa in some existing category. That person's dependents can then be given appropriate visas based on that. Because of the cost of leaving the country to obtain a visa, as well as the risk of losing a job, it should be possible for illegal aliens to apply for these visas from their current locations. This granting of legal status must also have a limited period of availability. This period should be long enough to process all illegal aliens currently in the country, and might be adjusted as the time to process each individual is better known. We might also require that illegal aliens seeking legal status demonstrate a basic proficiency in English or complete a course in English as a foreign language; this reduces the burden they will place on public services and is a fair additional price to pay.

I believe this to be a fair way to grant current illegal aliens legal status. If they are contributing to the economy, obeying the law, and learning the language, then they may remain. They do not, however, gain any advantage over those who entered the country legally. Unemployed illegal aliens or those who have committed serious crimes may not remain, though.

A potential wrinkle with this plan is that many illegal aliens are employed for less than the Federal or local minimum wage. Currently, they have no incentive to demand increased pay, even if they are aware of minimum wage laws, since to do so invites their employers to report them to Citizenship and Immigration Services. With legal status, there is greater incentive to demand the minimum wage. While not threatened with deportation, the threat of job loss is still present. If newly legal foreign workers lose jobs as they gain legal status, this could lead to workers declining to become legal or possibly a large number of legal foreign workers who have lost the eligibility for their visas. This is a serious potential consequence of legalizing current illegal aliens, and one I am not competent to assess.

In the third part of this series, I will discuss changes to the immigration system intended to deter illegal entry.

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