Tuesday, August 1, 2006

The Pence-Hutchison immigration-reform proposal, like the other prominent plans, fails to address critical issues relating to meaningful immigration reform. It must not become law.

The legislation fails to provide a real solution for a number of important reasons. Namely, the proposal: 1) will allow for a virtually unlimited number of immigrants to come to the United States; 2) favors low-skilled workers; 3) provides more preferences to the eight NAFTA and CAFTA countries over the rest of the world; and 4) gives no preference for English-language or employment skills that help make immigrants successful in our dynamic economy.

This plan swallows hook, line and sinker the idea that as long as there is a foreign worker wanting to come to America, and an American company that wants to hire the individual, the foreign worker should be admitted, allowed to work and put on a path to citizenship. This concept violates the principle followed by every other nation in the world, that immigration policy should be based on the needs of the nation, not the desires of those that want low-cost labor.

Under the Pence-Hutchison plan, foreign workers will initially be granted two-year work visas, automatically renewable for an additional 12 years. Then the foreign worker is given an “X-Change” visa, newly created by the legislation. After five years, the “X-Change” visa will allow the worker to transition to permanent resident status (a green card holder). Permanent residents are entitled to citizenship after five years. Because “temporary” workers will have the right to bring their families, the right to stay and work for 17 years and then the right to stay permanently, the vast majority will certainly do so.

A temporary worker program can play an important role in our immigration reform policy, but the Pence-Hutchison proposal, like the flawed Senate bill, does not create a real “temporary” worker program. To be truly “temporary,” the workers’ stay must be limited, for instance, to 10 months each year, and they cannot be allowed to bring dependents. This is common sense — we cannot expect that workers invited to move their entire families to America and live here for years will want to go home. Who will uproot these long-settled families if they become temporarily unemployed? The answer is that no one will.

Foreign workers entering under this proposal will overwhelmingly be low-skilled. It is well documented that such workers will cost the U.S. Treasury far more than they will ever pay in taxes. A flood of low-skilled workers will further depress wages for American workers who compete with them for jobs. There is a basic economic truth that cannot be escaped — an excess of labor drives down wages, a shortage of labor causes wages to rise. Few dispute that in recent years lower-wage earners have seen their wages decline. Professor George Borjas of Harvard, the leading expert in the field, reports that immigration has already reduced the incomes of low-skilled workers by as much as 8 percent, or $1,200 per year. For a family making around $25,000 a year, a decrease such as this can be the difference in making it or not.

By limiting the new program to only NAFTA and CAFTA countries, the bill would be a further and dramatic tilt to Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, over every other country in the world. At a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, a witness for the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, Nial O’Dowd, explained that “if the Irish antecedents of Andrew Jackson, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan were trying to enter the United States today” they could not get in legally. He justified his comment by noting that “of the 1 million green card visas given out last year, about 2,000 went to the Irish.” Irish settlers helped form this nation yet, amazingly, they received only two-tenths of one percent of our green cards last year.

Finally, in establishing a good immigration policy for the United States through comprehensive reform, it is critical to decide the number of immigrants we can accept and the skills we want them to possess. Clearly, these decisions should be based on the national interest, not special interests. Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, developed nations all, have objective employment-based immigration policies, usually centered on a merit-based points system used to evaluate which potential immigrants will contribute the most to their society and take full advantage of citizenship opportunities. Why are we not considering reforms to our immigration system that take these important issues into account?

The need for border and workplace enforcement is a given. What we have lacked in this discussion is a serious evaluation of the merit-based policies other developed nations have adopted. Neither have we had a real discussion of the number of immigrants that America should admit annually. Without such a discussion, good comprehensive reform cannot occur.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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