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The Anti-Assimilation President: Democrats Need A Values-Based Alternative To Bush Immigration Initiative

by Paul Donnelly

If the clichι was true that any policy proposal which gets flak from both Left and Right is probably a good idea, then Bush's bracero plan would be in good shape. Even before the President's plan was discussed at great length by an anonymous 'senior official' in a conference call with reporters on January 6th, he was being attacked from all sides. "Worth going to the mat over," huffed John Derbyshire of National Review, a typical paleoconservative reaction to what many described as a 'sellout', and words less polite on conservative talk shows and websites. Progressives were understandably angrier – the ostensibly non-partisan National Council of La Raza stated: "the real point of the Bush policy [is] not to help immigrants but to undermine the labor rights of workers in the US by creating this guestworker competition for jobs."

Watching the reaction to Bush's 'proposal', repeated at the Summit of the Americas where it was warmly praised by host Vicente Fox, was like listening to the color commentary for a televised sporting event, without the pictures: you couldn't tell what the score was, nor who was moving the ball. But you could tell a lot about the commentators: Daniel Griswold of the libertarian Cato Institute abandoned any pretense to principle, when he called the Bush plan "compassionate conservatism at its best -- a market-driven approach allowing supply and demand to get together in the labor market." (Note to Cato: free market economists used to recognize that what reconciles supply and demand is price, not a government-supplied workforce tied to one employer. The latter was known as a "subsidy", which free market advocates used to oppose – on principle.)

Cecelia Munoz, the savvy advocate for NCLR, displayed her canniness by observing to the Washington Post: ""Immigration reform is never easy. It all depends on how much political capital that Bush is prepared to invest in it." Just how much would be necessary was evident from the reaction of Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas, who added in the same article that he has "heartfelt reservations… (about rewarding) illegal behavior."

So much sound and fury, signifying – well, nothing. There is no Bush proposal. No legislation. Not even an outline worthy of the name. Key Hill players like House Judiciary Chair James Sensennbrenner (R-WI) were not briefed on the Bush plan. It is not clear if the Bush administration even intends to draft legislation and send it to Sensennbrenner – or, perhaps, expects that tough-minded legislator to write up the Bush speeches into law. Any careful reading of the proposal itself reveals that nothing was thought through even to determine which parts of the law it would repeal and which parts amended, not to mention loose ends of policy like enforcement. (The chief organization of Border Patrol agents was apoplectic: "Hey, you know all those illegal aliens you risked 'life and limb΄ to apprehend? FAH-GED-ABOWD-IT," wrote National Border Patrol Council Vice President John Frecker to 9,000 men and women in uniform who protect the US.)

The basic Bush plan appears simple enough: a new program would be set up in which willing workers would be matched with employers to hire them. Americans – presumably legal permanent residents as well as citizens – would have first crack, but then Mexicans and perhaps others would be eligible for employment in the US with temporary visas. These new temporary visas would be the vehicle for legalizing some of the estimated 8 million illegal residents of the US, who would thus be eligible for legal employment here. These temporary visas would be good for three years, and renewable for another three, and right up front, the administration reminded us all of their intent to enforce the law "both on employers and on people who are here illegally." An incentive would be provided for guest workers to return home after their visas expired, in the form of Social Security accounts earned through wages here, to be disbursed there. And finally, "a reasonable increase in the number of green cards", in the deathless phrase of the anonymous senior official.


The enormous untapped support for a real commitment to reform immigration policy was evident from the nearly hallucinatory quality of support this Bush mush got from the usual round of editorial writers and ordinary folks of good will. The President was given "credit for trying", for starting a dialogue, and assorted other good deeds which, along with $3.95, will get you a grande at Starbucks.

Reality check time: the President's proposal is no proposal at all, without legislative language that has yet to be written. To write legislation that would make the Bush bracero program into law requires specifics on all of the aspects of this 'plan' on which the President was quite deliberately vague to the point of dishonesty. So, you heard it here first: there will be no such legislation. Not in this election year, and probably not ever.

The legislative difficulties are immediately apparent: How many green cards are we talking about? How would anybody get one? Why would you want to try? Three years ago, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated there are 5.3 million illegal workers in the US, with 700,000 in food service industries, another 620,000 in construction and perhaps 250,000 providing domestic services. The redoubtable labor economist Philip Martin of the University of California at Davis estimates that nearly half, 1.2 million of 2.5 million employed in agriculture are illegal.

Since the current unskilled employment-based visa total is just 5,000 (when the Nicaraguan numbers are offset, a recent innovation by Lamar Smith (R-TX)), one can conclude that the "reasonable increase in green cards" the Bush administration anticipates is somewhere between 5,000 and… 7 million.

Some proposal.

But wait, there's more – and a cascade of cold water soaks through the sheer counterfactual lunacy of the Bush proposal. There are essentially three arguments for the 'circular migration' theory advanced by guest worker advocates. First is the idea that these people are Mexicans (primarily) in the US, and not interested in becoming Americans at all. They are workers – economic units – and not anchors for family-based immigration to follow.

Second comes the notion that remittances sent by workers in the US are a kind of extraterritorial economy for Mexico, El Salvador and other nations, a means of fostering economic growth in source countries that, over time, will eventually slow the flow.

Third (and neatly contradicting the rationale for guest workers, not to mention the notion that any of this has anything to do with free markets) is the idea that the 7 million or so now working illegally in the U.S. will leap at the prospect of becoming temporary legal because that will somehow pay them more AND offer the real chance at legal permanent residency and US citizenship.

Let's take them one at a time:

The first idea proves that Bush is not merely the anti-assimilation President, but could also scarcely care less about marriage and family values. In 1995, the State Department formally assessed the family backlogs for legal immigration, counting 1.1 million spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents waiting a minimum of 3 years. In 1997, after Congress had made unlawful residence in the U.S. for more than 6 months or a year punishable by a ban on reentry even with an immigration visa for 3 years and a decade, respectively (this ban pushed by the "pro-immigration" champion, then Senator Spencer Abraham), the State Department's estimate was that the nuclear family backlog had scarcely declined at all: to 1,050,000, while the wait had increased to five years – seven, for Mexico. Bush has proposed nothing to eliminate these most egregious anti-marriage provisions of US law, neither asking Congress for more immigration visas to eliminate the backlog, nor to repeal the three and ten year ban – so much for his sound byte that "family values do not stop at the Rio Grande".

But it is the origin of the backlog that proves Bush's actions speak louder against assimilation than his words speak for it. The nuclear family backlog originated AFTER the last amnesty. During the legalization of 3.1 million mostly Mexican workers between 1986 and 1992, employer lobbies insisted that those getting green cards were motivated primarily by economics, that they would work in the US until they had made a nest egg, and then return home to live well on their savings with their families – indeed, that the money they sent home to their families was a huge support to the struggling economics of Mexico and other nations.

Yet by the early 1990s, some 900,000 spouses and children of those granted amnesty had been petitioned for by those new green card holders. Each year, some 90,000 more are added to the back of the line, folks who have never benefited from amnesty – yet their time on the ever lengthening line increases, unless of course they break the law in order to preserve their marriages and raise their kids. The Bush administration won't even say how many are in line. And the Congress?

During Senate debate over immigration reform in 1996, Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) echoed an analysis done by Stuart Anderson, later Bush's first immigration policy director: "Why should we prioritize legal immigration for the family members of those who already got amnesty? They are already here, illegally, and we should not reward lawbreaking, twice." The evidence of the bracero proposal is clear that Senator DeWine's insight is exactly what Bush actually intends for those 'family values that do not stop at the Rio Grande.'

In the March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman made a distinction between mistakes, and folly. Trying something new which may, and in fact does fail, is not foolish: it's simply a risk. Trying something that has always failed before, and which the evidence shows will fail again this time in precisely the same way, is folly.

Bush is anti-assimilation the way a bigamist is anti-marriage: what he says counts for less than what he does. It is simply not possible to promote the assimilation of new Americans while outlawing and exiling their husbands and wives, forcing legal permanent residents and their spouses to choose between obeying the law and their obligations as parents.

Second: remittances. The Pew Hispanic Center recently concluded a comprehensive survey of attitudes and experiences with remittances in Mexico, finding that nearly a fifth of the Mexican population – 13.5 million people – were considering emigrating to the US. Those numbers would be alarming enough for those who believe in the Ellis Island model, the direct connection between immigration and American citizenship. But the Pew study plainly disproves the fond hope that the economics of remittances make for a new world of sojourner-Americans, Mexicans (and others) who will reduce the demand for immigration. Sorry, Mr. Fox: exporting your workforce and importing their wages is not a viable economic development strategy – even if the funds aren't looted, which happened to the last batch of braceros Mexico sent north. Working stiffs remember things like that.

Roberto Suro, the Center's director, wrote in an Op-Ed for the Baltimore Sun: "The most notable characteristic associated with those who responded positively [about moving to the US], however, was that they are remittance receivers. Among those getting money from a relative abroad, 26 percent said they had migration in mind. Focus groups with remittance receivers left little doubt that they considered coming to the US a ready solution to unexpected economic problems…"

Finally, the Bush bracero approach is based on the quaint idea that legal is better than illegal without confronting the difficult choices which make the distinction valid. Shortly after September 11, I was invited to a US Chamber of Commerce discussion on immigration, involving representatives of industries heavily dependent on illegal workers such as landscaping and roofing. The landscaper called for a guest worker program, because he simply couldn't get the workers he needed for the wages he could pay them. The roofer called for a legalization program, because he wanted to keep his best workers, to help them learn English and buy houses. These two guys had been invited, because the Chamber felt that they agreed. So I raised my hand.

I asked: "Fellows, correct me if I'm wrong, but: doesn't work on a roof generally pay more than work in the yard? So if you get your guest workers to come here legally for what you can pay them for landscaping, what's going to keep them from quitting and going to work for a roofer – who will naturally want these hard-working, family—oriented folks to stay?"

They had no answer – and neither does Bush, his 'plan' notwithstanding. That is why he hasn't proposed legislation, nor even those parts of his ostensible policy (such as tougher worksite enforcement) that are wholly under his control without legislation. A highly-regulated labor market, such as the Bush bracero program envisions, simply cannot compete with an unregulated illegal one. Since the Clinton administration did not deter employers from hiring illegal workers, it is unlikely that any Republican administration would – and hard to see why they would even try.

Unfortunately for sensible immigration policy, Bush's political ace in the hole is that Democrats have no true alternative. Sure, there are some bills, notably House Democratic Leader Gephardt's legalization legislation and the DREAM Act, to educate the children of illegal aliens – but both share the basic flaw: lipstick on a pig. Current immigration law simply does not work, and trying to make up for bad rules by writing more exceptions makes the problem worse, not better. Why don't Democrats act like an opposition party, and propose something to oppose the Bush's anti-assimilation plan?

The political professionals who drafted Bush's speeches recognize that Democrats are unlikely to give Bush a big legislative win in an election year, while even attempting to write legislation, much less pass it, would split the Republican Party. All successful immigration bills – 1996, 1990, 1986 – are largely Christmas tree collections of provisions. Bush knows that he simply cannot get enough Republican votes to pass his bill no matter how he decides key issues (what happens to per-country ceilings, with hundreds of thousands if not millions of green cards for Mexicans?), and cannot win the bidding war with Democrats that would thus be necessary to pass legislation at all, with dozens of Republicans defecting.

But there is an alternative available. Called "Values-Based Immigration", it is a points system that combines family and employment characteristics. Its virtue is to seek to resolve the conflict between our values and our immigration laws by fixing the rules, instead of making yet another exception, which of course any amnesty or legalization program must be. Sooner or later, we must face the fact that the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act has become like an old building – the foundation and architecture is sound, but the wiring, floors and plumbing, not to mention the windows and walls need to be gutted and rebuilt.

Here is how Values-Based Immigration would work: It would first recognize a fundamental moral distinction between types of family-based immigration. I love my five brothers and four sisters, but I live with my wife and son – thus reflecting values that are common to every culture on earth. So the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents should be an unlimited category, the same as the nuclear families of US citizens. (This was actually proposed during House debate of the 1990 Act – an opportunity missed. See "Strange No More"). While some might object – fewer than you might think, however – to this as a vast increase in legal immigration, it simply isn't so. The spouses and minor children of legal permanent resident are people whom we want in the US, right? That's why it's called legal PERMANENT residency. Moreover, all these people – whether we're talking a million, or 2 million – are already eligible for green cards. There is no value whatsoever in forcing these should-be-legal immigrants to become illegal residents, making them a problem to be fixed later, if at all – as the record since 1986 proves.

Second, Values-Based Immigration would recognize the fundamental connection between sibling based immigration and employment. Surely, no one needs to remind President Bush just how much a brother can help in getting a job – and the fact is, sibling immigration is largely an employment network. Without abandoning the family values involved, much less eliminating the category, let's treat it as such.

Third, Values-Based Immigration would recognize the direct connection between temporary and permanent. In order to free up resources to enforce immigration law against terrorists and others who must not be allowed to enter or remain in the United States (the several hundred thousand who have already had deportation orders served comes to mind), it is necessary to be clear on the true distinction between 'temporary' and 'permanent'. There are some genuinely temporary jobs, as Gary Endelman's article, "Not All H-1Bs Are Created Equal" has pointed out. But most ostensibly 'temporary' employer visas are intentionally transitional to permanent residency: we should build immigration policy on facts and values.

Consider a reality check example: someone from Bangalore comes to the US on an F visa as a student in Texas studying information technology, following the trail blazed before him. His older brother the legal permanent resident helps him stay on as a graduate student, doing research for considerably less than his market value IF he was free to work in the US – which he is not.

Eventually, his graduate work may result in an employer offering him an H-1B visa, perhaps about the time his naturalized brother files a petition for his immigration under the 4th preference. Given the torturous path through labor certification and the goofy economics of the H-1B job market, it's an open question which will deliver him his green card first – if at all, should lightning strike and Bush's braceros line up by the millions for the 5,000 visas currently available. (Do they get ahead of, or behind the half-million H-1B visa holders waiting for green cards?)

But with a point system that combines employment and family characteristics, as he accumulates precisely the reasons the United States wants him to stay, he gets that much further toward permanent residency: so many points for his degree, more for his legal employment in the US More for his US citizen sibling's petition – which a Values-Based Immigration system would manage not by a backlog measured in decades, but by delivering visas as quickly as they are earned through the characteristics of the individual.

The difficulty in debating the Bush proposal, such as it is, is that there has rarely been an alternative on the table that isn't simply a bit more of this and a bit less of that, without actually fixing what's broken. One reason for this, of course, is that there is little political upside to doing heavy lifting on immigration legislation – ask onetime Senate subcommittee chair former Senator Abraham or onetime House subcomittee chair former Congressman George Gekas. Another is that the most senior legislators with immigration expertise – notably Senator Kennedy – have a career vested in the mess made by tinkering at the margins of the 1965 Act -- legislation which, after all, Senator Kennedy managed to enactment. The underlying politics of immigration is that, as pollsters say, it has great cleavage but little salience: that is, when voters are asked their opinions about immigration, those opinions are strong. But it is not something which voters often bring up on their own as an issue that will determine their votes.

But this is a Presidential election year, which frees the debate from its usual legislative pettifoggery like "245(i)". Family values, market economics rather than subsidies, and the old-fashioned patriotism of assimilation, the Ellis Island model – Americanization – are the surest foundation for the pro-immigration majority of American voters. The best political tactics work on both offense and defense – a candidate can attack Bush to demand that his State Department release the family backlog numbers, and defend marriages and nuclear families; can attack Bush for opposing assimilation by providing a subsidy for employers, and defend the Ellis Island model that immigrants become new Americans, and best of all, immigration reform that is based on values is a thoroughly outside the Beltway approach. To defend his record and proposal, Bush will have to rely on the lobbyists and political professionals who drafted his bracero plan, without taking the proves-you're-serious step of briefing the Congress and drafting legislation that is certain to split his conservative base. But whether one supports Bush or not, there is no other route to a real debate: until Democrats propose a genuine alternative, it's Bush's way or the highway. "Me-too, only more" is not an alternative, and won't fix anything.

ILW.COM readers can play an important role in that, because this periodical serves those who understand just how badly broken the current immigration system really is, and who recognize that the usual debate between the usual suspects hasn't gotten us very far. For better or worse, even without actual legislation, Bush has said he supports the most significant change in our national approach to immigration since 1965 – a radical shift away from the assimilation model epitomized by Ellis Island, and toward a German gastarbeiter approach.

Democrats should take him up on that challenge, by proposing an alternative - one that renovates the 1965 Act to reflect the values we place on families and employment, as well as our common sense in recognizing the relationship between them. Readers who agree – and especially those who disagree with reasons – are invited to email me to say so, or even to send this proposal to the Presidential campaign of their choice.

Bring it on, as somebody once said.

About The Author

Paul Donnelly writes about immigration and citizenship. He can be reached at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.