Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

How to assess an immigration proposal

ASK THIS | May 23, 2007

Too much attention has been focused on the political accommodations involved in achieving a bipartisan agreement on an immigration overhaul – and too little on what would actually work. Here are some questions reporters – and the public – can use to assess how likely any immigration proposal is to achieve its stated goals.

By Dan Froomkin

When it comes to immigration reform, the ingredients for legislative success are not necessarily the same as the ingredients for successful legislation.

If the goal is truly to draw the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in this country out of the shadows – and to bring the rule of law to the inevitable continued influx of laborers across our southern border – then there are some very pragmatic issues underlying the heated political debate.

For instance, establishing massive fines that undocumented workers would have to pay before gaining legal status has turned out to be a politically expedient move: a sop to anti-“amnesty” conservatives who want to see those who broke the law face some sort of punishment.

But if the legislation that is ultimately passed calls for fines so prohibitive and punitive that most illegal immigrants can’t afford to pay them – and therefore have no choice but to stay outside the official channels – then a key goal will not be accomplished.

Here are some important, practical questions to ask anyone who’s advocating a particular brand of immigration “reform” -- compiled after interviews with Kevin R. Johnson, a law professor at University of California-Davis and co-editor of ImmigrationProf Blog, and Princeton sociology professors Douglas S. Massey and Alejandro Portes.

Q, How many people are covered?

The compromise proposal arrived at last week between the Bush administration and a bipartisan group of senators would apparently offer temporary legal status to all of the approximately 12 million illegal immigrants in the country as of Jan. 1, 2007, as long as they didn’t have criminal records.

But only 400,000 temporary workers a year would be allowed in – and they would have to leave after two years. That would only account for a fraction of the estimated 1 million people who cross the border illegally each year.

Q, Are the penalties prohibitive?

Most of the people applying for this program would presumably be laborers, so a high cost of entry could be prohibitive – and could doom the program to failure. Professor Johnson estimates that a $10,000 fine, for instance, would probably price 75 to 90 percent of workers out of the market.

Professor Massey points out that the government is going to have to gain the trust of a population that has historically gone to great pains to stay away from officialdom. “The fees are a big financial deterrent and they also make people suspicious,” he says.

Q. What is the point of the ‘touchback’ requirements? And what would the effect be?

“Touchback” requirements would make immigrants – or at least the heads of households – return to their home country before qualifying for certain steps in the path to citizenship. Massey calls such provisions “a waste of everyone’s time and money.”

Portes sees such a requirement as punitive, and says: “This idea of punishment works against itself. It plays into the hands of the smugglers and the unscrupulous employers, because immigrants in that situation are not going to come forward.”

Q. Would guest workers have the same rights as American workers?  If they quit or get fired, does that mean they get deported? Or can they keep their visas while they look for another job?

Restricting the workplace rights of guest workers – or making their legal status dependent on keeping in their employer’s good graces – would create a group of workers with second-class status, utterly at the mercy of their bosses.

But that may be exactly what some people have in mind. “While many employers want a guest worker program, they don’t want a guest worker program that has very tough wage and enforcement conditions,” says Professor Johnson.

Q. What happens if participants in the temporary worker program decide that they want to stay and become citizens? Do their years of labor earn them credit – or disqualify them from the path to citizenship?

“You expect immigrants to create the kinds of social and other relationships that other people do,” Johnson says. “But then how do we deal with it? How can you expect somebody to come – and not have some portion of that group fall in love and decide they want to get married?

Q. How stringent are the requirements at each level?

If the requirements at any point in the path to citizenship are too severe -- or unclear – that would create a tremendous disincentive to come forward.

One particular sticking point: “How are you going to have people prove they’ve been in the country?” asks Johnson: “If you’ve got people working off the books, it’s hard for them to show check stubs.” They may be living in places where they rent by the week.

Suppose someone is a day laborer, Johnson says. How are they to prove they’ve been employed? Or, suppose the employers of an undocumented domestic service worker haven’t been paying Social Security taxes and aren’t complying with the law – how likely are they to admit to the government that they’ve employed that person for years?

Massey says it’s important that the government be flexible in accepting various forms of documentation – including affidavits.

If undocumented immigrants think there’s a good chance they will be rejected and deported if they show themselves, they won’t come forward.

Q. Does the program create incentives for immigrants to return home?

Portes argues that cyclical immigration is desirable for countries on both sides of the border -- but that the militarization of the border has actually cut down on immigrants going back and forth, by encouraging them to bring their families and stay for good instead.

A cyclical flow of immigrants is healthier for the United States because the economy gets the workers it needs on a temporary basis. And the advantages for Mexico (most immigrants, after all, are from Mexico) are considerable as well. Cyclical migration means less depopulation of rural areas. It keeps remittances flowing from the U.S. to Mexico (once the immigrants bring their families up north, there is no one to remit to.) And it encourages the investment of migrant savings in the home country.

Rather than establish laws mandating return -- laws that , like the current ones, will almost inevitably be ignored – Portes suggests developing incentives to encourage immigrants to return home: “Some kind of tangible incentive to return at the end of three years, or six years.” He suggests, for instance, the “possibility of returning to them at the border whatever fee they paid for entry” or sending them their Social Security contributions to help fund their retirements in Mexico.

Q. Do the rules distinguish between people who entered the country as adults and those who entered as minors, in the company of their parents?

Massey says two to three million undocumented immigrants – or up to a fourth of the total population – entered the country as minors. “They’re guilty of no sin,” he said. “So they deserve immediate amnesty, as long as they have a clean record.”

Posted by Kim Reading -
07/08/2007, 05:49 AM

The real problem, I think, with the opposition to the earned path to citizenship is that they think that the government will not enforce the new laws either.

My [url=http://www.politicsforumpoliticalworld.com/]Political Forum[/url]

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.