After more than a year of intense national debate over comprehensive immigration reform, both parties are starting to talk about the possibility of piecemeal reform. In November, President Obama, a longtime proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, said he would accept a piecemeal approach: “If they want to chop that thing up into five pieces, as long as all five pieces get done, I don't care what it looks like.”
According to The Hill, Speaker John Boehner “has stipulated the House would not act on a comprehensive bill but instead pass a series of measures.” And according to Politico, House GOP leaders are planning to release a set of immigration reform principles that include support for piecemeal legislation.
Legalization is a high priority
Legalization of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants is the most contentious issue in the immigration reform debate; it is also the issue with the largest reach and the most urgency. In “More than 11 Million,” I show that legalization would affect not only the 11 million undocumented immigrants, but also their family members: nearly 9 million legal residents, 60 percent of whom are children and 74 percent of whom were born in the United States.
As the unauthorized wait and wait for a resolution, many are locked into low-income jobs that may be poorly matched to their skill sets, so the economy cannot take full advantage of their talents. I compared today’s undocumented immigrants with those legalized under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 and found that undocumented immigrants age 18 to 64 seem to be more settled in this country. About 61 percent have lived in the United States for more than 10 years. The current population is older than those legalized in 1986 and a larger share (25 percent) have some college education. The more time undocumented immigrants spend without legal permanent residence, the more they become entrenched in poverty and the less they can contribute to the economy.
So what type of legalization program should be adopted? Legalization programs should be seen as integration actions. I recently compared the Senate’s immigration reform bill (S. 744) with the IRCA to identify effective program features. Legalization programs with prolonged periods in temporary status, employer interference in certifications, and requirements of continued work in agriculture—all features of S. 744—delay the full integration of the would-be legalized and, consequently, their economic contributions.
IRCA’s most salient feature was the quick pathway to permanent residence of the legalized. I also find that today’s undocumented come from a more diverse range of countries and are more geographically dispersed than those legalized under IRCA. These aspects have to be considered when implementing legalization programs.
Tackling legalization alone ignores the bigger picture
Even if policymakers decide to focus on legalization, problems with not addressing the other pieces of reform come alive quickly. How can you reduce future illegal immigration if you do not address employer enforcement, temporary worker needs, border security, and effective tracking of temporary entries? How are we going to place unauthorized immigrants in the legalization queue when others have been waiting in the line for years?
Another problem with piecemeal immigration is that we have very little information about how these different pieces affect the economy, government coffers, and individuals. The most complete studies of the economic and fiscal impacts of immigration have not looked at piecemeal impacts. And studies of legalization have not considered the full fiscal impacts.
Immigration policy is a system of laws. Tackling one problem without addressing the others is a guaranteed way to produce leaks and spillovers that can affect the functioning of the entire system. In a previous blog post , I wrote about how employers were relying heavily on temporary worker visas because employment-based visas were plagued by a long waiting list and country caps. Reforms to the temporary visa program, I argued, could not be made without fixing problems with employment-based legal permanent visas. It will likely also be the case with a stand-alone legalization program where we must concurrently address border and port security, employer enforcement, guest worker needs, employer needs for low-skilled workers, and the long lines in the visa system.
Comprehensive immigration reform still looks like the most suitable solution for our broken immigration system. With the whole thing on the table, you can clearly see the inner workings, underlying structure, and interrelationship of its parts. Chopping the reform package up into five or more pieces may be politically expedient, but it doesn’t look like good policy.