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Initial Thoughts on the Republican Party’s Principles for Immigration Reform

Thursday, January 30, 2014
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The good news coming out of the Republican Party’s Principles for Immigration Reform released this afternoon is that the prospects for passing immigration reform were not further degraded. At first glance, it looks like they provide a decent platform to move reform forward. There is even substantial agreement between the two parties on a few key issues. But principles don’t give details, and where they give indications they still leave us with questions.

Let’s take them in order.

Border Security and Interior Enforcement

The GOP principles say the border has to be secured first and declare “a zero tolerance policy for those who cross the border illegally or overstay their visas” after the reform. One has to wonder to what extent deportations will change in practice under a zero tolerance system. And securing the border first begs a few questions: Or what? Does all incremental legislation offered depend on first declaring the border secure? What percent secure do Republicans want, and what is reasonable in practice? A requirement that the border be 100% secure would be both impossible and insincere.

Pro-immigration reformers might be squeamish about including language that specifies a zero tolerance policy for future illegals, but as long as the end result of the process is many more visas – both green cards and temporary work visas – that alleviate the incredible demand for access to the United States, there is nothing inherently wrong about inflating enforcement measures. More visas means border enforcement will be much easier since fewer people will try to enter the country illegally.

The Republican principles also call for an entry-exit visa tracking system, which seems entirely reasonable. If Facebook can handle the amount of “checking in” that goes on everyday, the United States should be able to figure out where you entered the country and where you left.

E-Verify

At first glance, E-Verify seems like a no-brainer: Employers run potential employees’ Social Security numbers to verify that they are eligible to work. But many privacy advocates are wary of a system that gives the government control over the ability to hire. They look at the error rate of current E-Verify employment checks and forecast a few million people a year being caught in employment limbo for something that is not their fault.

Their fears are well intentioned but slightly overblown, or at least easily remedied. Even if the government gets a few E-Verify checks wrong, the simple presumption by the government that the employee is legal until proven illegal would allow employers to continue with the hiring process while the mistakes are remedied – which is how it works now with the voluntary system. E-Verify is okay as long as it continues to be monitored with a skeptical eye.

Reforms to Green Cards and Temporary Work Visas

Incredibly, the GOP has come out in favor of reorienting green cards away from family reunification toward employment-based preferences, a move that many have claimed is long overdue. The United States stands alone among Western, developed countries in allocating its permanent residency slots for family members instead of workers – skilled or unskilled. Currently only 6% of green cards are given out to workers (the official proportion reserved is 13%, but that number includes spouses and dependents who are more appropriately catalogued under family preferences). In Germany that number is 70%. In the UK it is over 50%.

One question is whether the GOP intends to keep the number of green cards relatively fixed (around one million a year) and shuffle around available slots or increase the absolute number of employment-based green cards while keeping the number set aside for families roughly the same. Let’s hope they expand the number of green cards to keep up with demand and eliminate the backlogs. Removing or significantly increasing the country limits (no more than 7% of green cards can be allocated to a single country, causing significant wait times for Chinese, Indian, and Filipino immigrants, among others) would also be an improvement to the current system.

Another question to be answered is how the GOP intends to increase temporary work visa allocations. Many more H-1Bs are needed, to be sure, but the H-2A agriculture visa is technically unlimited (albeit with many restrictions that raise the cost of using one). Some indication by the GOP of how much they would like to raise the limits is necessary.

DREAM Act

Importantly, the GOP principles come out strongly in favor of passing the DREAM Act, providing legalization to those who came to the United States illegally while minors. Opposing the DREAM Act would be rightly seen as punishing minors for something their parents did, and would have pushed many away from the GOP. Many commentators expect the DREAM Act to pass even if all other parts of the reform break down.

Pathway to Legal Status

This is bound to be the most contentious issue in the bill. The Republican principles say current illegals would have to come forward, admit their wrongdoing, pay back taxes and fines, demonstrate proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves. The silver lining here is that the GOP is coming out in favor of a pathway to legal status, even if it ends up including some high hurdles.

What it does not say is how long they would have to wait to potentially qualify for citizenship or even green cards, except to say that “specific enforcement triggers” have to be implemented first. The Senate bill included a wait time of thirteen years until current illegals could become citizens. Does the House intend to put current illegals “at the back of the line” for green cards and make them leave the country, or seek a compromise where illegals receive temporary authorization to live and work in the United States while they wait in line for green cards? The latter makes much more sense from a practical standpoint, considering over half of illegals have been in the country for over ten years.

In the end, the GOP’s principles for reform are a good start that should make many people hopeful legislation will actually happen.

Follow Tom Church on Twitter: @TomVChurch

Note: This article has been corrected to say the GOP principles come out in favor of "pathway to legal status" instead of a "pathway to citizenship."