Political Divides Impede Immigration Reform
By Khan Shoieb '13
It’s a much too important issue to be treated as a political football,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) on Sunday in reference to the comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced last Wednesday by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Whether Menendez’s attempt to allow a lame duck Congress to take up immigration can be considered politically disingenuous is disputable, but there is little doubt that Cornyn, someone whose consistent opposition to reform efforts defy his supportive statements on the issue, is the one using immigration as a political football.

Menendez’s bill actually adopts many compromises with Republicans, including a controversial e-verify mandate and increased focus on border security and enforcement. Indeed, despite leaning left, the bill is largely successful at incorporating ideas from both sides of the aisle, beefing up security while finding equitable ways to deal with undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.

Unfortunately Cornyn and his colleagues are likely to resist any attempt to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform. Republicans mistakenly perceive the national atmosphere as hostile to the notion of granting undocumented immigrants a reasonable path to citizenship, an arrangement that will invariably be included in any final bill, and delay — as always — seems to be the easier alternative. Democrats are not without blame either — the politically exploitative nature of their schizophrenic approach to reform merits scorn.

The fundamental question of undocumented immigrants in the United States is, to many Americans, a question of fairness. Ought those who enter our borders illegally be allowed to live amongst us and take a slice of the economic pie? Ought they be allowed to consume public services — send their children to public schools, use emergency rooms, etc. — without paying taxes? These and other concerns are magnified when Americans are suffering themselves. In the face of an anemic economy, spiraling national debt and inexorable forces of globalization, open borders and undocumented immigrants seems like a luxury our country can’t afford.

The moral question, however, is more complicated. If we leave aside specific considerations, can a liberal democracy be true to its ideals and coercively prevent one person from gaining access to a way of life in order to marginally benefit another? It seems the answer would be no. Violating someone’s right to move freely in order to confer a benefit on someone else would be antithetical to the rights paradigm to which liberal democracies adhere.

The only way for one to resolve the issue is to assert that citizenship changes the equation — which is to say that the social contract requires the government to protect only the interests of its citizens. So if a particular immigration policy would have a detrimental effect — of any degree — on a government’s citizens, that government cannot then enact the policy.

But does citizenship, an arbitrary label contingent on one’s place of birth — dependent on luck — truly provide a sensible sorting mechanism to restrict access to benefits? There is reason to doubt a government’s obligation to protect its citizens outweighs its moral obligation to not violate the natural rights of others.

As we well know, however, life is not a political thought experiment. Economic realities preclude an open border policy, and citizens are within their rights to demand from their representatives policies they perceive to be in their interest. But it is a matter of unquestionable urgency — both sides of the aisle agree — that a system that has both enabled the undocumented population in America to grow to 11 million and entrenched a policy that leads to severe labor market distortions is in need of reform.

We are thus faced with two primary questions. First, what do we do with the undocumented population that is already here? Two, how do we calibrate our immigration policy in the future to be equitable as well as align with the needs of our labor markets?

Deporting all 11 million undocumented immigrants is simply not an option — not only because of the grave domestic and international consequences, but also because it is structurally and economically impractical. The only politically feasible way to move forward is to allow some way for these immigrants to pay back a debt to society for entering illegally — perhaps by paying a small fine — and then to allow them to work towards citizenship. It is important to note here that one reason many Americans perceive undocumented immigrants as driving down wages is because of the economic inefficiencies derived from their limited mobility — fear of legal trouble leads many of these people to stay put when doing otherwise would be in their interest. Thus resolving this issue can accrue immediate economic benefits to many Americans.

Second, in conceptualizing an immigration policy moving forward, we need to accept that our current admission policy does not meet the demands of our labor markets. Market forces dictate that people will inevitably move to high-wage jobs in lieu of low-wage ones, regardless of what we attempt to do about border security. This translates into having some sort of equitable system where, even if the granting of full citizenship isn’t possible, immigrants are allowed to fill low-wage jobs for long periods of time.

Additionally, one of the primary reasons the U.S. has been lacking in innovation is its visa policy with regards to high-skilled workers. We set aside only a miniscule fraction of the total visas granted per year for high-skilled workers such as scientists, engineers and technology experts who are in high demand and can reap great rewards for our economy.

Menendez’s bill does a decent job of dealing with these core immigration issues as well as the myriad other related ones — federal/local enforcement, DREAM Act, etc. Indeed, for the most part, it is sensible in accepting the realities we face and forging an equitable path forward. But whether the political circumstances of our day allow important legislation such as this to be passed in a lame-duck session is questionable, and there is good reason to doubt that anyone will touch immigration until the economy picks up. But the urgency of the situation demands otherwise.

Issue 05, Submitted 2010-10-06 03:01:18