Next time around, bill should address immigrant quotas

Editorial

So the grand-bargain “comprehensive” immigration reform bill introduced a few weeks ago in the Senate is dead, having fallen 15 votes short of the 60 needed to close debate and move to a final vote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says that after some tinkering it could be brought up again, perhaps in just a few weeks. But for now, President Bush’s effort to work together with Democrats to garner one legislative success in his lame-duck term is dead in the Rio Grande — and in the deserts of California, Arizona and New Mexico.

Apparently the country — and its legislators — is simply too polarized just now to reach a compromise on this issue.

Like most compromises, this one was less than perfect. However, its imperfections must be weighed against the fact that failure to pass some kind of immigration reform measure means acquiescing to the status quo, which most observers claim to believe is intolerable, as millions of people live in a kind of “shadow.”

There was plenty to dislike in the proposal. The “guest worker” program was reduced to 200,000 a year from 400,000 — about half of the 400,000-500,000 per year the U.S. economy has been absorbing in the form of illegal immigrants.

Its labyrinthine provisions — work here for two years maximum, return to the home country for at least one year, work here for another two years — plus the fact that an amendment would “sunset” the program in five years, made it likely that a significant number of workers would choose simply to ignore it, leading in time to another large pool of illegal immigrants.

Many critics are eager to brand any program that leads to possible citizenship for those who are already here illegally — even one that

involves a hefty fine, learning English and 13 years — as “amnesty.” But hardly any have proposed an alternative.
Nobody of whom we are aware advocates hunting down 12 million people and deporting them, which would be the strictly logical alternative but which everybody knows would be enormously disruptive and expensive and require establishing something like a police state.

A strategy of “attrition,” using workplace raids, more rigorous identity requirements for everybody, monitoring landlords, renters, laborers and those who use medical services, with the idea of making staying here so unattractive that most illegals would simply get up and leave, would be intrusive to native-born Americans. That would also be expensive, damaging to the economy and it might not work.

Even if it did work, is that the kind of “enforcement society” Americans want to live in?

Perhaps the least attractive feature of the bill was one that at first glance looked attractive: setting up a “point” system to give preference to future immigrants who have skills the government determines are “needed” in the economy, like education, college degrees, facility in English, particular skills, and work experience, to replace the current system of giving preference to family members of those who are already here legally.

This sounds like common sense at first glance: give preference to those who can contribute to American prosperity immediately rather than allowing an uncontrolled stream of unskilled workers in. But it assumes that government knows what skills and assets are really valuable, and can predict what skills will be needed in the future.

This would increase government control over the economy by privileging certain industries or crafts, and inevitably lead to uneconomic distortions.

Few if any bureaucrats in the 1980s foresaw the building or biomedical booms of the 1990s or the decline of the auto industry.

If any immigrants are to be given preference, it should be those “sponsored” by U.S. businesses because they want to hire them, and the numbers should be determined not by any government agency but by the constantly changing requirements of a dynamic economy.

With all its imperfections, something like the Senate version — preferably without the misconceived point system — would have been better than the status quo.

An honest observer, however, must acknowledge that it would not solve all the current problems and would have unanticipated consequences that would almost certainly require another “fix” in 12 or 20 years.

Perhaps by then support will have gathered for a simpler approach: significantly raising or even eliminating quotas so the marketplace rather than government bureaucrats decide how many immigrants arrive, screening for infectious diseases and membership in terrorist organizations, and a signed agreement not to apply for welfare or other government benefits until one has worked for enough years to have contributed to paying for them.