Much of the discussion about the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill has focused on the hair-trigger political questions of the legislation: What will be done about border security? When and how will currently illegal immigrants be legalized? The legal status of 11 million residents, the second question, is no small thing, but on the other hand, the vast majority of them will remain in the United States as pretty much full members of society and our economy no matter what legislation passes this year.
But the bill also significantly restructures America’s legal immigration system, which will have a significant effect on the number and composition of the people who will come to the U.S., legally and illegally, in the future. That topic is not quite as politically controversial, but it’s important.
The bill is immensely complicated, so this handy table from the liberal Center for American Progress is an interesting summary of the significant sources of U.S. immigration — current numbers and projections after the bill:
The broad answer: Indisputably, if the bill is passed, there will be significantly more legal immigration, some of high-skill workers, and some of low-skill people. More problematically, CAP says that the bill will actually reduce total immigration because it will cut illegal immigration to negligible amounts.
CAP doesn’t lay out any reasons why this will happen, which is sort of understandable in that it’s just a number-crunching exercise, not a study. But it’s still a fairly absurd conclusion. Its only explanation is that the bill “moves what has been a chaotic process of unauthorized entry into legal channels by combining increased border security and workplace enforcement with enhanced legal means to enter the country.” Elsewhere, they say, “While S. 744 will go a long way toward ending unauthorized immigration, we assume that some small number of people will still enter outside of status, here estimated at 10 percent of the average.” This, despite the fact that they admit their estimate of 668,000 annual illegal entries is “conservative” (it’s based on the period from 2002 to 2009, to leave out a boom in illegal crossings around 2000 and the precipitous drop during the current recession). Obviously it’s possible illegal immigration never returns to the levels it once reached, as Latin American economies get richer and their fertility drops, but CAP isn’t relying on that. It’s just saying allowing some more people in legally and mandating a new plan for enforcement — with many measures that have been mandated before and weren’t implemented — will effectively end illegal immigration.
And the disappearance of illegal immigration is key to their claim that “even accepting that some small number of unauthorized immigrants will arrive in the future, the United States will still see fewer people entering the country each year once the Senate immigration plan becomes law.”
To some extent, the people who currently come here illegally will now do so via legal channels — the guest-worker program created by the bill, for instance; CAP assumes all of them will (or will be deterred by border security). But most of the people who are running the risk and cost of coming here illegally today won’t be able to do so legally after the bill is passed – illegal immigrants are generally not eligible for high-skill programs, employment-based visas, and family-based permissions (though some people with legal relatives here come here illegally rather than wait, and now the Gang of Eight bill means there won’t be a wait). Some people who might otherwise immigrate illegally will now be eligible for a new “W visa” program for low-skill workers, but that will actually replace an existing guest-worker program (H-2A) rather than offer a whole new legal route, and it will now allow immigrants to bring their children and spouses, and give them work authorization, too.
In order for CAP’s math to work, we would have to see almost no people entering the country illegally each year. Before we know what happens to the security of the border, CAP calculates that the bill will increase current legal immigration flows by 50 percent, or almost 500,000 more immigrants per year. That might well be a good thing — I’m inclined to think it isn’t if many or most of them are low-skill — but proponents of the bill have to explain why it is, why the U.S. should have more immigrants than the substantial number we already let in each year, because, CAP’s “unauthorized entry” hand-waving aside, that’s what the bill will mean.
CAP’s chart also breaks down some of the huge increases in legal immigration the bill includes: Yes, the bill no longer allocates visas to siblings of green-card holders and citizens, reducing the “capped family visas” number from 226,000 to 161,000, a reduction in 65,000 per year. But it wipes out that reduction precisely three times over (according to CAP’s projections) by removing caps on all the other family-member categories (parents, spouses, and children of all ages — though parents of green-card holders remain capped). Such immigrants tend to be low-skill and low-income.