Fixing immigration

Both President and Senate target two failed parts of the legal immigration system: bringing family members to America, and regulating the numbers of foreign-born workers in high-tech and agricultural.
Crosscut archive image.

Rallying for reform in Seattle

Both President and Senate target two failed parts of the legal immigration system: bringing family members to America, and regulating the numbers of foreign-born workers in high-tech and agricultural.

Last week’s proposals from a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators and President Obama kicked off a high-stakes Congressional effort to reform our broken immigration system.

Part I of our series analyzed what the senators and the President had to say about the treatment of those 11 million undocumented people who are already here in America, with a special focus on the issue of border security. 

Part 2 examines how both proposals treat the legal immigration system, including family- and employment-based issues.

Both Senate and presidential proposals target two failed components of the legal immigration system. The first governs how legal residents and U.S. citizens bring immediate family members to America. The second deals with the numbers and conditions of temporary visas for high-tech and agricultural workers.

The Senate acknowledged that “substantial visa backlogs” are forcing families to live apart, which “incentivizes illegal immigration.” In other words, the “failed and irrational“ legal immigration system actually makes “a legal path to entry . . . insurmountably difficult for well-meaning immigrants.” Indeed, roughly half of all immigrants who are currently undocumented came to the country legally, but lapsed into undocumented status because of insufficient visa quotas for certain countries and family categories, bureaucratic and administrative mess-ups or difficulty navigating the complex immigration system.

Family-Based Immigration

As of November 2012, about 4.5 million people languished in the legal immigration “backlog;” 4.3 million were waiting for family-based visas, the rest for employment-based visas. There are currently only 226,000 family visas and 140,000 employment visas available each year, numbers that have not been adjusted to keep up with the increased needs.

Despite the pent up demand, many visas go unused each year, often because of administrative errors and bureaucracy. From 1998-2007, an estimated 210,000 visas were “lost” — or unused.

The resulting family-based immigration backlogs have caused enormous problems for Washington State’s large immigrant communities, especially those from the Philippines, India, Mexico and China, places where the wait times for family members are the longest. A U.S. citizen of Filipino origin and a U.S. legal permanent resident of Mexican origin would both wait about 15 years to bring an adult unmarried child to live with them.

The plight of Filipino World War II veterans, some of whom live in our state, is one of the most wrenching examples of the broken system. Filipino WW II veterans served with distinction alongside U.S. troops, but were stripped of promised benefits by the U.S. government after the war. When they were finally offered citizenship through the 1990 Naturalization Act, they settled in the U.S. and sponsored their children to come and live with them. Two decades later, the ones who are still alive are still waiting for their children to join them. Others have died, permanently separated from their families.

The president’s proposal specifically addresses recapturing unused visas, and increasing the annual number of visas and country caps for family-based immigration, all important steps for any effective reform package. 

Same-Sex Couples

Another component of family immigration deals with same-sex couples. Current immigration law allows a U.S. citizen to sponsor his or her immigrant husband or wife, first for permanent residence, and after three years for citizenship. But the federal government still does not recognize gay marriage. Even though same-sex marriage is now legal in Washington and eight other states, same-sex partners cannot be sponsored under federal immigration law.

Otts Bolisay, a former gay colleague of mine at OneAmerica, is a native of the Bahamas. He has been living in America for 24 years — on various types of visas and always in fear that he would be forced to leave. For 13 of those years, Otts has been with the same partner, an American citizen. “I found love,” he said. “I can get married now, finally. But I can’t stay.”

President Obama’s immigration reform proposal includes same-sex couples. The Senate framework does not. Sen. John McCain recently called the same-sex issue a “red herring,” and compared it to adding “taxpayer-funded abortion” to a final immigration reform bill.

If such a proposal finds its way into an immigration reform package, the Catholic Church — which has made strong moral arguments for immigration reform in the past — would likely withdraw its support. It may be, however, that recent gay marriage victories and the growth of support for immigration reform among other non-religious sectors (such as business) will overcome the opposition and help get this provision into any final legislation. 

Employment-Based Visas

Both the Senate framework and the President’s proposal also emphasize the need to increase the number of visas available for high-tech workers, researchers and graduate students. Another bipartisan bill introduced last week by a group of Senators including Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), also targets this component of immigration reform. Past attempts to pass such bills have been held up in favor of a more comprehensive package, and the same is likely to happen here. 

Critics, including some unions, have argued that hiring cheaper foreign-born workers is just a way for corporations to keep wages down. They would prefer to see American companies invest in training native-born workers, instead of importing foreign labor.

David Parsons, President of UAW Local 2141, sees things differently. His union represents graduate students, including about 1,000 who are here on international student visas. “Foreign graduate researchers/teachers and post docs are a major part of the workforce and help carry out our universities’ core missions,” he said. Their research contribution includes “high-tech” work in software and hardware design, as well as critical work in mechanical, civil and environmental engineering, transportation, urban planning, medical research and public health. Research shows that foreign-born workers, particularly in the fields of science and technology, generate twice as many U.S. jobs as their American-born colleagues.

Parsons argues that the size of the visa program is less important than the fact that most high-tech visa holders are beholden to the single employer who holds their visa, which makes them less able to change jobs or fight any worker rights violations. (In the Hatch-Klobuchar bill, this provision would be eased.)

Both the Senate and the President’s proposals also include reforms around the future numbers of temporary agricultural and “lower-skilled” workers, a deceptive designation given the skills required for agricultural and service-sector jobs. This aspect of the Senate framework is a response to the needs of Republican states such as Kansas, which has a big dairy industry that runs on immigrant labor. The Senate’s proposal stipulates that these workers would only be allowed in if unemployment is low and no American is able to fill the job.   

Key for unions and immigrant advocates will be ensuring sufficient worker protections for any such “guest worker” program. In order to avoid worker abuse, as happened with imported Mexican labor during the post-World War II bracero program, provisions such as the ability to transport a visa from one employer to another, the right to organize and a path to permanent residence will be key to getting agreement between the Chamber of Commerce and labor unions. 

Employment Verification

Ultimately, for any immigration reform bill to pass it will likely have to include an employment verification system. Such a system was mentioned in both of last week’s proposals. There may be tacit understanding, if not enthusiastic support, among immigrant rights advocates that they will have to accept a verification system in exchange for other important components.

Advocates prefer a simple electronic verification system, such as E-Verify, which is currently in use by some employers. Sen. Charles Schumer’s alternative, a biometric identification card, would likely generate serious opposition from privacy advocates.

In the end, it is clear that there are still lots of details to be worked out. But there seems to be a new consensus among the business community, pundits and politicians that immigration reform will jumpstart our economy, adding as much as $1.5 trillion to the economy over the next decade. Faith leaders across the political spectrum have become more and more vocal about the moral case for immigration reform. Republicans and Democrats recognize that the future of their political parties lies in their ability to achieve —and trumpet their roles in — immigration reform.

In his speech last Tuesday, President Obama advised that as the immigration issue heats up, it will be tempting for us to think about it as an “us versus them” debate. But don’t forget, he added, that “most of us were once them.”


Click here for Part 1 of this two-part series on immigration reform.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Pramila Jayapal

Pramila Jayapal

Pramila Jayapal is a Democratic member of Congress, representing Washington state's 7th District.