Friday, April 12, 2013

Immigration Reform

Immigration reform is the hot topic in politics right now. I work in that field, so I definitely have some thoughts on the issue. Of course, refer to my disclaimer: My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect the opinions of my employer. Also, you should be aware that I follow law and policy in my work, not my personal opinion.

As I've said before, immigration is one topic where everyone has an opinion, but nobody seems to know anything about it. Not only do they get it wrong in movies and TV, even the news gets it wrong. Regularly.

I came into the field with the same understanding as a lot of people. The system is broken, and we ought to allow all the illegals to stay. Now, I know that we have, in a lot of ways, a very good system--on paper. The problem is a question of incentive and will. A person in Guatemala whose life is threatened by drug cartels and has no job prospects has a lot of incentive to come to the United States. An employer who has a shitty job that needs to be done has an incentive to hire anyone who's willing to do the job. And the government just doesn't have enough incentive, apparently, to enforce the law. And because the law hasn't been enforced, the system has broken down. If they had enforced it from the beginning, we would still have a very good system, not just on paper.

So, what are my thoughts now, after working in immigration for over four years?

I don't believe for one second that this is a civil rights issue. (I don't buy into either of the great "civil rights" issues of our age.) I don't feel sorry for people who crossed the border illegally, or overstayed their welcome. They brought in on themselves, and they wouldn't have done it if they were in a worse situation now than they were at home. I do feel sorry for people brought here as children, but only a little. If anything, their parents are the only ones they can blame. And if we take pity on them and grant them immediate citizenship, then that creates some very bad incentives for even more people to do the same thing.

At the same time, I'm a pragmatic person. I know it's simply not possible to send them all home, as I'd like to do. But I am not keen on the "pathway to citizenship" either. There is a middle ground, and a better solution.

Polls show people strongly support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. I suspect that's because they haven't thought about other options. There are ways we can allow them to stay and work legally without granting citizenship. We are already doing similar things with the children who were brought here by their parents, or with people who aren't eligible for legal status but we can't send them home (e.g., because their home country won't take them back, or they'll be tortured if they're sent home).

That's the best and fairest solution: Grant a special status that gives only the right to stay and to work. It should not lead to citizenship (but should not operate as a bar to citizenship either). They can't vote, they can't petition to bring their relatives here, but they can stay.

And to fix the problem so it doesn't happen again, increased border security can only do so much. You need to modify the incentives. This can only be done at the employer level. We have a program which allows employers to verify that someone is legally allowed to work. We only need to make it mandatory, and then beef it up to increase its reliability and integrity. If anyone tries to skirt it, they need to face some real penalties.

In sum, cut off the draw (illegal employment), wipe the slate clean, but don't give people a gift because they broke the law.

There's a lot more to immigration reform than simply dealing with illegal immigration. I'm not going to get into that. But I do want to mention here, at the end of this rant, the whole semantic debate. "Illegal alien" is the most accurate term we have. I don't know what happened to that term, because you heard it all the time in the 90's. Not all aliens with unlawful status are technically immigrants, so "illegal immigrant" doesn't always work. And many of them are in fact documented, i.e., the government has information on them, so "undocumented" is a very poor term.

So . . . this has gone on very long. Thoughts?


  1. Replies
    1. I already answered that with an affirmative below, but I had to comment on your blog. Fucking brutal. When I was in defense it was private (with a few appointments). I suspect I'm also in a smaller jurisdiction. But holy shit, your blog is brutal. It's too bad you don't update it anymore.

  2. Well thought out and informed. I would tend to disagree that those who came here to seek a better life should be punished for it by not being allowed citizenship. You said it yourself, most come here seeking a better life. It would seem to me that as long as they don't jump the line in front of those who've done it the proper way, we should have a path for citizenship. I'd hate to see the formation of a two tiered status: some can get citizenship, some can't. The better way, it would seem to me, is to assimilate them all. United we stand, divided we fall, etc. . .

    I agree about making the employers pay penalties for employing illegals and cutting off the draw. One way to do that is help the economies in the countries from which these folks come.

  3. I do work for DHS.

    How is that a punishment? I think the vast majority would be perfectly happy if they're allowed to stay. In my thinking, they would still be eligible for an existing legal status, which could in turn lead to citizenship.

    1. I guess I'm not understanding the solution. They are allowed to stay, but not allowed to pursue citizenship? If they stay here long enough, why can't they become citizens? Why can't there be a path?

    2. The status quo is that they're not allowed to stay, or collect Social Security or a lot of the other benefits legal permanent residents can get. Anything is an improvement over that status. What I think they should be allowed is the ability to stay. I'm open to allowing them most of the other benefits of legal permanent residence (like Social Security, assuming they pay in like everyone else). What I don't think they should be allowed is (A) the ability to petition to bring their relatives to this country and (B) the full rights of citizenship, UNLESS they can obtain legal permanent residence after being allowed to stay. In other words, if they can prove that they would have been allowed to immigrate had they done it the right way then they can get there, but I don't think we need to open a new path to citizenship for them.

    3. I think we might be saying the same thing, but you are saying it with more information and the benefit of knowing the trees through the forest.

  4. Punishing employers is also only part of that fix. We also need to give them the tools to hire the people they need. I don't think anyone believes employers of low-skilled work have those tools.