The Republican congressional majority in Congress is likely to take on immigration reform. To be successful, their proposal must balance three requirements. It must satisfy the labor needs of its constituents in the agricultural, construction, meat processing and service sectors. It must eliminate the alleged threat immigrants pose to the status of English as the national language and to other elements of American identity. It must also avoid policies likely to result in the continued exploitation of immigrant workers, which would mobilize unions, Hispanics, civil libertarians and others to pressure key members of Congress to block any reform.
This can be accomplished by enacting the following reforms, which will supplement (but not substitute for) current immigration regulations.
Immigrants admitted under the new provisions must be at least 18 years old, and the number allowed to enter should depend primarily on labor needs. This will reduce immigrant flow, which will in turn diminish demands for bilingual social services, including bilingual education that must be made available for children. Thus, this reform reduces the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country and the impact they will have on the nation's culture.
The only social services these immigrants would have access to are those available to permanent legal residents. Given how limited these benefits are, immigrants would need to be employed to support themselves. This reform needs to include features that make it realistically possible for them to do so. Therefore, workers who immigrate under this system must have all the rights of U.S. workers—they would be able to move from job to job or state to state, organize unions, enroll in educational programs at their own expense, and enlist in the military. They would also have the same access to social services like education that are available to Legal Resident Aliens (LRAs).
They could return to their home countries as frequently as they desired, and re-enter the United States at no additional cost. Exercising this option mitigates the social cost of familial separation inherent in this proposal. Immigrants are able to return home as frequently as they choose. Doing so, of course, can be costly, but occasional trips are within the reach of many. Moreover, the success of this model is evident in the historical experience of Italian and Spanish workers who regularly returned home from Switzerland, Germany and France.
Employers would be obligated to certify that workers are legally in the country by using documents that citizens and LRAs already possess—a U.S. birth certificate, a valid Social Security card or passport, or proof of LRA status—or a non-duplicable high-tech ticket for electronic verification that immigrants participating in this new program would be required to purchase. Employers might protest having to check for legal status, but that is a small price to pay in exchange for having access to a reliable, legal work force.
Designing how to implement such reforms is what policymakers are supposed to do. Conceptualizing the nature of the problem is the obligation of critics. With this and my prior blogs dealing with immigration reform, I hope I have met at least in part my obligation.
Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University professor of Political Science, has studied immigration, political attitudes and voting for over 30 years. He directed the first national political survey of Latinos and has authored, co-authored and edited 18 books and more than 100 scholarly articles and reports on foreign policy, immigration and political attitudes and behavior.