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The Problem with the GOP’s “Piecemeal” Immigration Reform

Last week I noted that President Obama has twice derailed comprehensive immigration reform–the first time (as a senator) with his support for “poison pill” amendments, and the second time with a temporary fix that did nothing to restructure the broken immigration system. It seems that now, however, it is the House GOP planting land mines under the reform process.

Politico reports that key House Republicans are considering dividing up immigration reform into a series of separate, minor fixes. This is unlikely to work, and may very well stop the momentum that had finally gathered in Congress and the sense of urgency felt by many in the party to get the immigration issue off the table once and for all. (Marco Rubio, for his part, will reportedly deliver the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address in both English and Spanish, increasing his outreach efforts to the Hispanic community.)

That is not to say that each facet of the system isn’t in need of some improvements, or that the individual pieces of legislation that would come out of this effort wouldn’t be worth enacting. It also may be the case that some Republicans in the House are aware that their party is the one most likely to block comprehensive reform, and are therefore making a good-faith attempt to craft legislation they know can pass the House. That would at least salvage some of the work being done if the reform effort stalls. But there are a couple of problems with the GOP’s plan. Politico reports:

GOP members of the Judiciary Committee used the year’s first hearing on immigration to discuss border security, background checks and the possibility of giving illegal immigrants a permanent legal status without granting full citizenship.

There also was talk of working out how to attract and keep higher-skilled workers with advanced degrees in the science and technology fields. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the former chairman of the committee and a longtime immigration hard-liner, said allowing these workers to stay would be “a much easier lift” for members than a more comprehensive bill, pointing to legislation he sponsored that previously passed the House, which would have granted such workers permanent U.S. residence.

From the outset, GOP congressmen seem not only to be considering a piecemeal approach, but they also seem to be getting distracted by aspects of reform that would be easier but which would not solve the real problems with the immigration system. There’s nothing wrong with making border security a priority–as part of more comprehensive reform. In fact, border security should be a no-brainer: it just seems silly for a nation like the U.S. not to have control over its borders.

But security threats often come not from those crossing the border illegally (though such security risks certainly exist), but from those who have come here legally and overstayed their visas, and similar, less detectable, lapses. “Border security” should go hand in hand with fixing the visa system as well.

Additionally, border security has improved, and deportations are way up under President Obama. And the current lull in immigration may or may not be temporary, but it certainly means the more pressing issue is what to do with those already here. And on that note, while the Reason magazine immigration chart I posted last week has made the rounds, it appears its authors haven’t quite found a way to get it in front of members of the House GOP. Of course it is easier to clear the path for high-skilled immigrants than for low-skilled immigrants. But it’s low-skilled immigrants who have virtually no path to citizenship and whose work is thus forced into a kind of black market for labor.

The American economy certainly benefits from high-skilled immigrants, many of whom are well positioned for exactly the kind of tech-sector entrepreneurship that the U.S., long past its glory days of AT&T and Bell Labs, would like to see more of. But lower wage manual labor is essential for other sectors of the economy, and can often do just as much to create jobs by cushioning a company’s bottom line, increasing productivity, and enabling expansion.

And it’s important for members of Congress to keep in mind that high-skilled immigration backlogs create a visa problem; low-skilled immigration conditions create an illegal immigration problem–which is what they are setting out to solve, and certainly what border security is intended to curb. The low immigration levels make this a convenient time for Congress to focus on more than just border security when it comes to immigration reform. Kicking the can down the road will only exacerbate an untenable situation.

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