Reforming Immigration Reform
Five ways to fix the Gang of Eight’s legislation

Sen. Marco Rubio take questions at a press conference April 18. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)


Yuval Levin

A huge amount of American social policy is directed to reducing the number of people in our country who have low levels of skills and education, and it would be bizarre to use our immigration policy to increase that number significantly. Between the temporary-worker program (parts of which are not so temporary — the new W visa is not only permanently renewable but would actually allow temporary workers to apply for green cards through the new merit-point system) and its increase in low-skill immigration, this bill envisions a very significant increase in that number. And that a meaningful portion of that comes through a guest-worker program is particularly problematic, as Ramesh Ponnuru ably argued last month.

It is important not to overstate the degree to which additional low-wage immigrants would harm low-wage Americans. The evidence suggests that the direct negative effect on wages is limited (and low-skill immigration offers a modest benefit to the larger economy, though nowhere near what high-skill immigration does), though the effect on employment seems to be somewhat larger. The enormous increase in low-skill immigration envisioned in this bill would make for rather different circumstances than those measured by the available research on this subject, however, and seems likely to place greater pressure on the wages of low-skill workers. And in any case, even limited economic harm to America’s most vulnerable workers is unnecessary and unwise, and the artificial expansion of the low-skill and low-wage portion of our population, with its train of serious accompanying challenges, is all the more so. To what problem is such an increase in low-skill immigration a solution?

Amending the bill to significantly reduce the scale of low-skill immigration (by eliminating the guest-worker program and changing the merit-point system to place far greater value on education and skills) would be a major change, of course, but not one that undercuts the fundamental compromise of the bill, which is about a balance between border enforcement and legalization rather than high- and low-skill immigration.

Some business interests would be less happy with the bill as a result. Too bad. It is well past time for Republicans to focus more attention on the concerns and priorities of working-class families. In other policy areas, Senator Rubio has actually made this case himself, and he and others are working to translate that increased attention into policy proposals. They ought to do the same here. 

2. Add actual triggers for legalization. The Gang of Eight bill establishes a process by which illegal immigrants can immediately apply for the newly created Resident Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status, and mere proof of their application enables them to work legally. Then, once the secretary of homeland security tells Congress that she has begun implementing strategies to build more fencing and otherwise protect the southern border, DHS can begin processing those applications. Then, ten years later, if the department can show that the border and fencing strategies are in effect, a new employer verification system is in place for all employers, and an entry and exit system is in effect at air and sea ports, DHS can begin to process immigrants’ applications to move from RPI status to green cards.

The trouble with this approach is that the triggers are not really triggers; they don’t initiate the key events in the legalization process. The privileges of the RPI status are not very different from those of permanent residence (especially because they include the ability to travel abroad), so illegal immigrants would immediately gain the right to work legally once the bill becomes law and then would gain more or less all the other privileges they care about once DHS merely informs Congress that it has begun to do something about the border. That’s ridiculous.

Triggers, of course, are almost inevitably going to be somewhat ridiculous. There is no easy way around that, but it is possible to make them a little less ridiculous, especially by putting them earlier in the process and involving Congress more in the particulars of border enforcement — requiring the enactment of a separate border-enforcement law before any legalization can begin. Before illegal immigrants can even apply for RPI status, and therefore have their employment status effectively legalized at all, DHS should be required to submit a border control and fencing strategy to Congress, which would then have to approve the strategy by a vote of each house, or else instruct the department to submit a revised strategy for a vote.

The RPI application process should not begin until the border strategy has been enacted into law. The beginning is the key; everything else happens after amnesty. Then, in order to start processing those applications, the department would need to show that implementation of the approved plan is under way. And the second-order triggers — proof that the plan is in effect and that employer and visa-exit verification (which should happen at land crossings, not just the air and sea ports proposed) are operating — should come at the six-year mark when RPI status has to be renewed. No renewals could occur unless those markers were met.

This would hardly be a foolproof system. But it would be more likely to actually bring us closer to effective enforcement of our immigration laws, and would more properly prioritize the elements of this reform.