New Senate Immigration Amnesty Plan Bears Union Imprint

If there were any doubts that the oft-used term “comprehensive immigration reform” is a stalking-horse for amnesty, a new Senate proposal unveiled yesterday should dispel them. The measure, touted as a way to fix our “broken” immigration system, will do the opposite. Not only will it demean U.S. citizenship and rule of law, it also likely will produce adverse economic effects. The main feature of the 844-page bill is that it would allow millions of illegal immigrants to apply for legal residency and eventual citizenship. Significantly, the bill bears a strong union influence. And labor officials aren’t bashful about it. Ana Avendano, AFL-CIO director of immigration, declared last week: “Politicians know that if they stand in the way of citizenship we will steamroller them.” The bill, worked out in secret by a bipartisan group of senators known as the “Gang of Eight” (see photo), amounts to getting rolled over.

Some context is necessary. The United States, more than ever, is an international resettlement destination. According to the Census Bureau, our immigrant population, naturalized and otherwise (including the illegal portion), experienced a net increase during 2000-2010 from 31.1 million to 40.0 million. By 2010, nearly 13 percent of the nation’s population consisted of first-generation immigrants, the highest share in a decennial year since 1920. California registered the highest state share at 27.2 percent. These figures, it should be emphasized, don’t include the roughly 400,000 “birthright citizenship” children born to illegal immigrant parents on our soil each year. During 2000-10, about 13.9 million newcomers came here legally. Mexico and Asia each accounted for more than 4 million of them, while Central America, the Caribbean, Europe and “other” each sent slightly more than one million.

What too often is often ignored in this debate is that illegal and legal immigration reinforce each other. This is because immigration, for the most part, occurs within the context of family networks, even if economic self-interest is the prime motive for arrival. As legal immigration rises, so does illegal immigration. The more people who arrive in the U.S. from a particular sending nation, the more they encourage family members and friends from that nation to join them, whether legally or not. As Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, observed years ago: “It is no coincidence that legal and illegal immigration have risen in tandem. The communities of legal immigrants formed since the mid-60s serve as incubators for illegal immigration by providing housing, jobs and entrée for their compatriots who haven’t yet managed to procure a green card.”

Illegal immigration takes one of two forms: 1) illegal entry (“border-jumping”); or 2) time limit overstays or other violations of the terms of a legitimate visa. It is difficult to gauge the true level of illegal immigration because the activity, by its nature, invites avoidance of detection. But there is little disagreement over the fact there is a lot of it – and more of it now than 30 years ago, when Congress was debating the first major amnesty bill. The most commonly cited estimate is a sizable between 11 million and 12 million, derived by researchers at the Pew Hispanic Center, a figure which has held steady since 2005. And that may be well on the low side. Whatever the true number, the symbiotic relationship between legal and illegal immigration is a reality. And the rising incidence of each has imposed very real social costs on the American people. They include high usage of public benefits, high crime rates, large increases in numbers of semi-literate and unskilled persons, political balkanization, linguistic separatism, environmental degradation and an erosion of rule of law. A series of court decisions requiring state and local governments to provide key services to illegal as well as legal immigrants has led to escalating fiscal burdens. The nationwide annual cost of public education for illegal immigrants, thanks mainly to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler v. Doe (1982), now exceeds $30 billion – and that’s not even including as much as $64 billion for bilingual instruction and another $40 billion for capital expenditures.

The situation has generated calls across the political spectrum for reform. Unfortunately, “reform” is a fungible term. And for supporters of mass immigration, the best kind of reform is to bring as many immigrants as possible into this country and keep as many as possible in it, regardless of legal status. On a practical level, this means granting amnesty to anyone who requests it, all the while justifying such a policy with evasive language such as “normalization,” “jobs Americans won’t do,” and “a path to citizenship.” It assumes that amnesty, as if through some magical process, can provide a clean slate, bringing order to a chaotic situation. Supporters don’t realize that an amnesty, far from being a fresh start, raises the expectation of future amnesties. It induces more of the very mass immigration it’s supposed to discourage.

We’ve already gone down this road. In 1986, Congress passed and President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, or IRCA. This legislation, debated furiously for more than four years, was supposed to resolve the problem of illegal immigration, once and for all. It granted amnesty to roughly 2.7 million persons of the slightly more than 3 million who had applied. And in a classic bait-and-switch, immigration authorities, with the tacit or overt approval of Congress, plus any number of governors, only tepidly enforced the law’s first-time-ever sanctions against employers who knowingly hired unauthorized workers. There were at least six subsequent mini-amnesties, including a few “late amnesty” awards for those persons initially not qualifying under IRCA. On a practical level, there is no such thing as a “final amnesty”; there is only a final amnesty for now.

That brings us to the new immigration reform bill, formally known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S.744). The measure, introduced during the wee hours of Wednesday morning following a Tuesday release of a 17-page summary, is the work of eight senators – four Democratic and four Republican – working in consultation with the Obama administration and a parade of lobbyists. Supporters, as expected, are highly reluctant to call the package an amnesty. But that’s how it would operate. And despite having some beneficial features, its contents for the most part are alarming. It makes major concessions to interest groups favoring high levels of immigration, while failing to address the fact that illegal immigration will happen anyway as long as legal immigration is set at high levels. Here are the key features:

Border security. The proposal initially would authorize $3 billion for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to enhance security along our southern border. The principal focus would be on closing porous “high-risk” sectors, where rough terrain has inhibited Border Patrol officers from catching persons illegally entering our country. The bill establishes a goal of apprehending at least 90 percent of all illegal crossings from Mexico.

Work visas. The new Senate bill would expand the number of visas for high-skilled and low-skilled workers in order to ease alleged labor shortages. The measure in particular would expand the number of slots under the H-1B visa program for high-skilled employees, typically engineers and information technology workers, from the current 65,000 to 110,000, a cap that eventually could rise to as high as 180,000. It also would create a new visa for up to 20,000 low-skilled workers a year starting in 2015, a number set to increase to 75,000 a year starting in 2019. The proposal also grants construction companies up to 15,000 visas a year.

Employee Verification. The measure mandates the use by employers of the online E-Verify system to check the resident status of job applicants. Non-citizen applicants would be required to show a biometric work authorization card or biometric green card. Employees would be able to lock their Social Security number into the system to prevent usage by others. There would be a five-year phase-in period.

Agricultural workers. The proposed legislation includes an “AgJobs” section that would allow unauthorized agricultural workers to obtain legal resident status. The legislative summary states: “Undocumented farm workers who have made a substantial prior commitment to agricultural work in the United States would be eligible for an agricultural card.” In addition, AgJobs would establish new guest worker visa programs (W-2 for contract workers, W-3 for at-will workers) to replace the current H-2A program. The phase-in period would be four years. Up to 337,000 visas over three years initially would be available.

DREAM Act beneficiaries. The measure would allow certain persons who came to the U.S. illegally as children – dubbed “Dreamers” after the never-passed DREAM Act – to remain in the U.S. and obtain a green card after five years, whereupon they would be automatically eligible for citizenship. All such immigrants could gain legal residence if they finish high school and then enroll in college for at least two years and/or serve in the military. Previous drafts of the DREAM Act established the age of 30 as a ceiling for eligibility. Egregiously, the new Senate bill removes this cap. The legislation thus would codify President Obama’s administrative decree of last June indefinitely halting deportations of such persons. At the time, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that as many as 1.4 million persons could benefit.

Diversity lottery. The measure would repeal the diversity visa lottery program, which provides up to 55,000 visas annually for persons from supposedly underrepresented sending nations. This program, created as part of the 1990 immigration amendments, remains indefensible today. But immigration restriction advocates should hold off on popping open the champagne cork. The proposal would replace the diversity visa with a merit-based visa category that uses a point system based on family ties and work skills.

Amnesty and a path to citizenship. At last we come to the main attraction. The bill effectively ends the threat of deportation for virtually all illegal immigrants currently here who arrived prior to January 1, 2012, and on top of that, would provide green cards to roughly 4.5 million spouses and other relatives. As soon as six months after the bill is signed, beneficiaries could obtain “provisional” legal status.  Once the Department of Homeland Security establishes a required border security plan, the illegal population would be home-free. They would be allowed to work in the U.S. after they pay an initial $500 fine plus any back taxes, learn English, remain employed, and pass a criminal background check. After 10 years, amnesty recipients could apply for lawful permanent resident status (i.e., a green card) through an expanded merit-based immigration system. These applications would be processed regardless of whether the Department of Homeland Security achieves the 90 percent threshold in stopping illegal entries. Though the green card would not be automatic, most applicants would wind up getting one anyway. Total penalties would be capped at $2,000. After receiving a green card, the immigrant would have to wait three years to obtain citizenship.

Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the two lead members of the aforementioned “Gang of Eight,” claim their measure is a compromise born of long negotiations with people of conflicting points of view. In a guest editorial appearing Monday in the online Wall Street Journal, they argue:

Like all genuinely bipartisan efforts, this bill is a compromise. It will not please everyone, and no one got everything they wanted. The legislation we introduce on Tuesday has more support than any past effort. In a time of deep partisanship in Washington, groups that have been at loggerheads on a range of issues – from the AFL-CIO to the Chamber of Commerce, from the United Farm Workers to the American Farm Bureau Federation – have come together to support our bill.

This legislation is truly comprehensive. It would provide a credible way for undocumented immigrants to apply for legalization and eventually citizenship – but only after specific, achievable steps have been taken, including securing our southern border with the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles and other proven surveillance capabilities. We believe that Americans will accept a common-sense approach to the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are here now, and to prospective legal immigrants, provided that there will be no future waves of illegal immigration.

Organized labor played a key role in shaping the bill. Indeed, the political breakthrough of the amnesty legislation occurred in February when the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced they had ironed out major differences. Contrary to McCain and Schumer, union and business groups for well over a decade have worked closely on immigration issues. Their leaders readily admit as much. Chamber President Tom Donohue candidly admitted that his group and the AFL-CIO have been partners from the beginning: “I’m working personally with Mr. (Richard) Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, on a number of issues that we can come to some accomodation.” The labor federation’s in-house steamroller gal, Ana Avendano, likewise has good things to say about the Chamber of Commerce: “The cause of the undocumented is our cause, and the Chamber can be a powerful ally in expanding citizenship to all working people in the United States.”

The much-ballyooed rift between business and labor, in other words, is a myth. Their differences are about how to achieve amnesty, not about whether to achieve it. The AFL-CIO and the Chamber long have differed, for example, over the issue of guest workers. The labor federation strongly opposes the concept; the Chamber supports it. Yet both groups are in full agreement that the U.S. needs to boost legal immigration, and legalize the resident status of persons here illegally, in order to meet workforce needs. Moreover, toward that end, each has worked with pro-amnesty ethnic activist groups such as the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and the National Council of La Raza. In this larger context, Donohue and Trumka getting to a “yes” wasn’t that hard.

Back in 2006, I authored a Special Report for National Legal and Policy Center titled, “Why Unions Promote Mass Immigration: Behind Organized Labor’s Interest Group Alliances” (see pdf). The report described at length how union officials came to form a key segment of a powerful labor-business-ethnic alliance to keep immigration at high levels, regardless of its overall impact on the nation. Each faction has its reasons for lending support. Unions seek new members to boost their sagging portion of the nation’s work force; business groups seek to minimize labor costs; and ethnic activists seek to win elections and exert political influence at all levels of government. Yet they are allies because though they often disagree over how to promote open borders, they all support the principle of open borders. And they donate heavily to political candidates to ensure friendly legislation.

This dynamic is every bit as true today as it was seven years ago, if not more so. Union officials are counting on passage. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, in a video (with Spanish subtitles) dated December 20, 2012 and appearing on the federation website, called for a reform plan that would “fix the broken immigration system” and “provide a road map to citizenship.” The Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million workers and which is the lead union in the Change to Win labor federation, for some time has advocated mass immigration on its website under the heading, “SEIU Principles for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” The union calls upon Congress to create “a realistic and expeditious mechanism whereby the estimated 11 million undocumented persons currently living in the U.S. can get right with the law.” The manifesto also calls upon lawmakers to “replace the current undocumented flow of workers with a 21st Century system that allows new American immigrant workers and family members to come to the U.S. in a safe, legal and orderly manner.” And with respect to what passes for border control, SEIU recommends that Congress “provide an opportunity for undocumented workers to legalize their status and to have safe and orderly channels for future immigrants to enter our national legally.” The Gang of Eight pretty much have given these guys what they wanted.

The vociferous support by organized labor for immigration amnesty is ironic because it represents a 180-degree turn from the historic union position. Unions, led by American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers, in fact, were at the forefront of support for the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which established strict nation-based quotas on new immigration that would last until 1965. Organized labor argued, and with good reason, that large numbers of unskilled workers would undercut wages of the native-born. And it maintained this position through passage of the 1986 IRCA law. It was during the years immediately following passage that unions turned away from the restrictionist position, a progression culminating in a formal pro-amnesty statement in February 2000 by the AFL-CIO Executive Council.

The sad thing is that amnesty could make rank and file members worse off economically, especially in service industries with high concentrations of low-skilled workers. The empirical literature on the effects of immigration on wages isn’t unanimous, as a 2010 Congressional Research Service paper explains. Notwithstanding, many highly reputable economists believe that beyond a certain point of absorption into the labor force, unskilled immigrants drive down wages and/or drive up unemployment among entry-level workers. Harvard economist George Borjas, who probably has done more research on the subject than anyone else, has a rule of thumb: For every 10 percent increase in the foreign-born portion of the workforce, wages among the native-born on average falls by 3 to 4 percent. He concluded in a recent summary of the literature: “Although immigration makes the aggregate economy larger, the actual net benefit accruing to natives is small, equal to an estimated two-tenths of 1 percent of GDP. There is little evidence indicating that immigration (legal and/or illegal) creates large net gains for native-born Americans.” Recent immigration especially has not been good to workers already here. Borjas noted: “A theory-based framework predicts that the immigrants who entered the country from 1990 to 2010 reduced the annual earnings of American workers by $1,396 in the short run. Because immigration (legal and illegal) increased the supply of workers unevenly, the impact varies across skill groups, with high school dropouts being the most negatively affected group.”

The open borders enthusiasm exhibited by unions is at once bad economics and bad Americanism, argues Cornell University labor economist Vernon Briggs. Professor Briggs, who actually is highly sympathetic to the goals of unions, notwithstanding argues that union officials are selling out members, and American workers as a whole, by getting on the amnesty bandwagon. In his 2001 book, Immigration and American Unionism, he concluded:

The presence of illegal immigrants in the labor market affects all workers (author’s italics) with whom they compete. Theoretically, underdocumented workers are potential union members, but experience clearly shows that unions are unlikely to organize more than a small fraction of them. If illegal immigrants remain a significant proportion of workers in low-skilled occupations…other workers need protection from competition with them over the terms of employment. Unions have traditionally put the interest of workers first and immigrants second, if at all. The proposal to strip away the few safeguards that immigration policy currently has to protect American workers from the adverse consequences of illegal immigration represents a major reversal of attitude, putting the interest of illegal immigrant workers ahead of the larger interest of American workers in general. The new policy itself is analogous to taking a shortcut through quicksand. American workers – especially those in low-skilled occupations, who far outnumber the stock of illegal immigrants currently in the country – could only regard it as a betrayal of their welfare.

On balance, then, the new Senate bill is likely to do far more harm than good, even from the perspective of the workers belonging to, or likely to join, a union. Worse yet, it would undermine the integrity of rule of law, effectively sending a signal to the rest of the world that lawbreaking in the U.S. will be rewarded rather than punished. And it permanently would balkanize our nation’s polity and culture. While it does have the virtues of mandating E-Verify and repealing the diversity lottery system, it also puts in place a much worse system, one with almost unlimited opportunities for fraud. Anyone familiar with the workings of immigration bureaucracies knows that even under the best circumstances an agency’s ability to detect fraud is seriously compromised by a large crush of applicants for legal residence.

Supporters of unlimited immigration enjoy repeating the mantra that our current system is “broken.” The fact of the matter, however, is that it isn’t broken. The system usually works well when it is allowed to do so. Unfortunately, the people who employ this cliché are the same ones who are doing their best to break the system, creating as many obstacles as possible to apprehension, deportation and imposition of ceilings on permanent and temporary visas. There is a self-fulfilling prophecy here: Create a quagmire; complain about the quagmire; and “fix” the problem by deepening the quagmire. If America appears overwhelmed by immigration now, take a good look at what we will look a decade from now if the measure becomes law. Numbers USA, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit group dedicated to genuine patriotic immigration reform, estimates that the bill would provide amnesty to anywhere from 11 million to 18 million illegal aliens and “could result in an additional 5 million green cards being issued in the first 10 years above and beyond the 1.1 million green cards that are currently issued each year.” Legal immigration would increase by more than 50 percent in the initial decade following passage. The current system isn’t “broken.” But it will be if self-styled reformers get their way.

Every bit as reprehensible as the content of the bill is the furtive manner in which it came about. Hand-picked senators from both parties, allied with the Obama administration on immigration, drew up what amounts to stealth legislation with a “bipartisan” aura. The 844-page bill is the end product of about two dozen secret meetings between lawmakers and representatives of various interest groups. The fix was in from the start. All members of the Senate Gang of Eight – Republicans John McCain (Ariz.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.); Democrats Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Richard Durbin (Ill.) – are supporters of mass immigration and of bending the law (i.e., amnesty) in order to achieve it. If their colleagues got to see any part of the legislation during its evolution, it must have been a happy accident. There certainly weren’t any hearings. Even the formal introduction of the bill – between 2 A.M. and 3 A.M. yesterday – reeks of stealth. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is eager to hold two hearings in just two days – this Friday and next Monday. The last thing he apparently wants is for his colleagues, and the American people as a whole, to look at the fine print and voice their objections.

Skeptics and outright opponents are rightly insisting on transparency. They want a chance to read the bill from start to finish and comment on it. Toward that end, several lawmakers, led by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, have created a counter-movement known as the Gang of Six. “A number of us have sat back and watched with amazement as some of our colleagues have leapt to erroneous conclusions,” King remarked. “But we are where we are with the momentum of the Republican Party.” Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is cautioning against rushing the measure through Congress in the manner of the health care overhaul of 2010. “It’s nothing but a starting point,” Grassley asserted. And Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., put it well when he said:

Chairman Leahy’s decision to now hold two hearings in two days – one on Friday, one on Monday – is only further proof of the Majority’s desire to rush this bill with minimum public scrutiny. We are talking about legislation that will impact virtually every aspect of our society, reshape our entire immigration system, introduce at least 30 million new foreign workers into the economy, and directly impact every single American worker and taxpayer…Something is truly broken in Washington when the people, the law enforcement officers who protect them, and the people’s representatives, have less time to review the bill that the special interests who helped write it.

Some lawmakers, like Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla. (in photo, second from left), claim there isn’t anything to worry about. “This is not an amnesty,” Rubio recently assured doubters. “Amnesty is the forgiveness of something.” The senator is more than a little naïve. The new immigration bill is about forgiving people whose very presence in this country is an affront to American law. That’s just one of the many points that opponents of the bill should raise. But they have to speak loudly. Because when the AFL-CIO says it plans to “steamroller” over political opponents, it means it won’t hold anything back.


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