Senate passage of immigration reform legislation, S 744, begs the question: Is it better than current law? Probably, but the answer could change.
Parts of the bill do improve both the immigration system and the labor market. New rules limit abuses of internationally recruited workers, make union organizing easier and protect immigrants from employer retaliation. S 744 also prioritizes permanent immigrants with skills over family connections and creates a Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research that would make the system more data-driven. And regularizing unauthorized migrants would bring exploitable workers and their families out of the shadows, allowing them to assert their rights and bargain collectively. Both immigrants and Americans would benefit as wages rise, and law-abiding employers would no longer have to compete in a race to the bottom.
But much more should have been achieved.
Applicants for Registered Provisional Immigrant status — the status afforded to qualifying unauthorized immigrants in S 744 — must pay processing fees and back federal taxes, as well as meet minimum income and employment tests, and then go to the back of the imaginary immigration “line.” The result? An estimated one-fourth to one-half of the 11 million unauthorized migrants might never attain legal status — dooming us to repeat history. The amnesty legislation in 1986 offered a speedier and more direct path to legalization. Yet it turned out to be too restrictive, leaving out 2 million to 3 million immigrants, who became the core of today’s unauthorized population.
The new Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research should be an independent agency that can give Congress the information needed to adjust immigration levels to real-world economic conditions, while increasing transparency and public support. Instead, S 744 limits its role and places it in an inappropriate Homeland Security subagency with no research or analytic expertise and that serves corporate clients.
Too much of the bill is corporate giveaways, at the expense of wage growth and job opportunities for U.S. workers. A massive guest worker program will fill year-round jobs in lower-skilled occupations like housekeeping and landscaping, and a separate, existing seasonal program for similar jobs will double in size. The Senate apparently doesn’t care that wages have been flat and unemployment in double digits for years in these occupations.
The tech sector’s lobbying firestorm — based on unsupportable claims about severe labor shortages in science, technology, engineering and math fields — paid off. S 744 nearly triples the troubled H-1B guest worker program without fixing its loopholes and abuses despite little evidence of a high-tech labor shortage. Most H-1B guest workers are employed in information technology jobs, where wages are stuck at 1990s levels and unemployment remains above pre-recession levels.
To the benefit of contractors and supplier firms, the bill wastefully spends $46 billion for more drones, equipment and manpower to further militarize the southern border. The additional 20,000 border patrol agents the bill mandates will have little to do since the net flow of unauthorized migrants from Mexico is already near zero and, because of Mexican demographic trends, is unlikely to increase significantly.