Delicate Balance

John C. Fortier
Research Fellow
John C. Fortier
Last week's immigration deal hits the political sweet spot, as evidenced by the howls from both the right and the left. But aside from the politics, the substance of the bill needs to change, and the question is whether those changes will upset the delicate political balace.

The temptation in politically polarized Washington is to govern from the right or left. Hold your party together and add a few token votes from the other side. Much more difficult is the kind of deal that gains substantial support from both parties, but has critics from the right and left. A partisan deal wouldn't work on immigration. First, the issue does not unify, but rather divides both parties, especially Republicans. Second, even though Democratic majorities and a Republican president favor a comprehensive immigration reform bill, it was not reasonable to expect President Bush to cut a deal with Democrats and bring along only a handful from his own party.

This is why the deal that Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and others hammered out is politically viable. The blessing of Kyl, an opponent of the Bush and McCain packages in the 109th, has brought along a significant bloc of Republican support. The compromise package can probably count on 25 to 30 Republican senators, including former critics like Georgians Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson. Ted Kennedy's support keeps Democrats from losing too many votes on the left. Monday's 69-23 vote to proceed with debate on the bill next week is a rough guide of its Senate support. There will be more opposition from House Republicans, but the Kyl compromise should garner the 60 to 70 House Republicans needed to pair with 150 to 170 Democrats to get it done.

The thrust of many of these changes is to make the bill more generous with respect to immigration, so any changes will have to be balanced with other measures that keep the delicate political balance.

With this compromise in a position to pass into law, the dealmakers have every incentive to resist changes. There are, however, several provisions that they will have to amend due to business opposition or impracticality.

First, the bill does not do enough to increase H-1B visas, which companies use to bring in highly skilled workers.

Second, high-tech companies worry that the proposed point system will make it harder for them to hire the people they need. Current immigration policy favors the unification of families; the compromise will change this over time to favor work skills, work experience and English proficiency. This change is probably a necessary part of a political deal. Conservatives are concerned with the daisy-chain effect of relatives bringing more relatives, and they favor a system that admits higher-skilled workers who can assimilate quickly. But the current system also allows firms to sponsor an individual to fill a specific job; under the new approach, they will have to look to a pool of workers created by government, not their preferred candidate.

Third, the temporary-worker program is favored by those worried about too much immigration, and it may serve businesses who employ lower-skilled workers, but it is hard for companies with high-skilled needs to bring workers for only a two-year period.

Finally, the provision that requires those here illegally to return to their home country before reentering under a new status will be too burdensome for those from faraway or troubled countries. It might work for Mexicans living near the border, but not as well for others.

The thrust of many of these changes is to make the bill more generous with respect to immigration, so any changes will have to be balanced with other measures that keep the delicate political balance.

It will be hard work, but the Kyl group has taken the first step.

John C. Fortier is a research fellow at AEI.

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