Take the time to get immigration reform right


Crowds of immigrants protest in favor of comprehensive immigration reform while on the West side of Capitol Hill in Washington, April 10, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Immigration legislation is complicated, with many provisions that can have consequences affecting millions.

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  • Rubber-stamping the first draft of an immigration bill can produce a law rife with unintended consequences.

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  • Current US immigration laws have not been serving us well, and not in just one respect.

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"Without legislative language," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy declared March 20, "there is nothing for the Judiciary Committee to consider this week at our mark up."

The subject of his statement was immigration legislation, and his irritation was understandable.

"For months I have urged the President to send his proposal for comprehensive immigration reform to the Senate," Leahy noted. He might have added that the White House, with access to the expertise and experience of the Justice and Homeland Security departments, could easily have come up with a draft.

But the president is holding back, Leahy said, "at the request of a few Senators who are engaged in secret, closed door discussions" to prepare a bill they promised "by the beginning of March," a deadline that "has come and gone."

That was an acerbic reference to the Gang of Eight, which well into April has still not delivered a specific proposal.

Leahy had good reason to gripe. Immigration legislation is immensely complicated, with many moving parts and provisions that can have real world consequences affecting millions of people.

Yet a week later Leahy promised that his committee would consider whatever proposal the Gang of Eight produces "with all deliberate speed."

To Republican committee members' request for extended hearings, he decried "artificial delays, delays for delays' sake."

Now it is certainly true that opponents of legislation will try to stretch the process out until it is too late to act. But it is also true that rubber-stamping the first draft of a bill hundreds of pages long can produce a law rife with unintended and unhappy consequences (see Obamacare).

And it is certainly not true, as White House press secretary Jay Carney argued, that all the issues have already been aired out in the 2006 and 2007 debates on immigration legislation.

Many things have changed since then. We've gone through a recession and a period of sluggish economic growth. Net immigration from Mexico has at least temporarily stopped.

New methods of border control have been put in place but not fully assessed. Ditto for the e-Verify system for validation of legal status.

And it may be time to address broader questions. Immigration law currently sets out quotas for countries.

Country quotas originated in the Immigration Act of 1924. It limited the number of immigrants from each country according to the percentage of the population of that country's descendants in the 1890 census.

The idea was to restrict the number of Southern and Eastern European immigrants and to ban almost all immigrants from Asia.

We don't have any such motives today. We need all the high-skill people we can get, from whatever countries.

There is also reason to question the family reunification provisions for adult siblings and other collateral relatives. They are responsible for high levels of low-skill immigration which may not make sense in a slow-growth economy.

Family reunification provisions also had their origins in the 1924 legislation. They were put there to assuage Southern and Eastern European immigrants who had become citizens.

There are constituencies for them today. But there's also a strong argument that we need to tilt our immigration system toward a greater high-skill intake.

That is the approach taken by Canada and Australia, our Anglosphere cousins, to their great advantage. They have instituted systems which make decisions not according to the source but to the skills of the would-be immigrant.

Given all this, it doesn't seem unreasonable for the judiciary committees in both houses to spend more than a week on hearings after the unveiling of legislative language.

Some advocates of comprehensive immigration legislation view extended hearings and debate as a tactic intended to stir up opposition among people they regard as bigoted.

But it's not necessarily bigoted to oppose a bill that includes some element of forgiveness for those who have broken the law. It's a legitimate view that deserves a hearing and a chance to prevail.

As one who has favored legislation with an element of forgiveness, I think it's less important to get an immigration bill through than it is to get immigration right.

Our current immigration laws have not been serving us well, and not in just one respect.

I understand the desire of politicians to push something through while the time seems opportune. But it's worth taking extra care with a law that could shape the nation for years to come.

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