Jan. 6, 2005--House Speaker Dennis Hastert took the floor for his first speech in the109th congress on Jan. 4 to discussed a theme that has divided many business owners: immigration. The terrorists who attacked the U.S., Hastert said, exploited border-security oversights and abused American immigration laws, and the U.S. must implement tighter restrictions on immigration. It was a controversial speech--the first in what will be a Congressional term filled with debate over immigration policy.
Surprisingly, the debate isn't breaking along party lines. House Judiciary Chair James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) has created an immigration-reform package that Congress will address soon. The bill fills in a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border; lets federal agencies accept only driver's licenses that have been issued with proof of legal U.S. residency; makes it easier for the government to reject asylum seekers; and makes it harder to appeal immigration decisions.
But some of Sensenbrenner's Republican colleagues say that's much too strict, and point to a program called AgJobs as a better model. This bill would give illegal agricultural workers a chance at temporary legal status, and set them on the path to permanent U.S citizenship. Backed by 63 senators and 126 representatives from both parties, this bill was held up in the last Congressional session, but is expected to come roaring back this term.
Surprisingly, it's AgJobs, not Sensenbrenner's proposal, that falls closest to what President Bush has outlined as his vision of immigration reform. He's said he supports loosening the immigration laws, and particularly allowing temporary workers legal status. (However, he also said he'd help Sensenbrenner and his allies pass more restrictive border-control--this in exchange for their support on the intelligence bill). Legalizing the workers, Bush said in his year-end news conference, will help the government track them, and will let U.S. border control officials chase down "crooks and thieves and drug runners and terrorists, not good-hearted people who are coming here to work."
Opponents argue this easing of immigration controls might lead to higher health care costs, with uninsured workers crowding hospitals, along with Americans losing their jobs, beaten out by the foreign workers. But supporters say foreign workers are an economic necessity, and America must handle that reality. "Anyone who employs people in lower-tech jobs anywhere in the U.S. knows that our companies are already employing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of foreign nationals who reside here without authorization. And our laws are written in a way where we pretend that we don't need them," says Steve Ladik, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and head of the immigration law group at Jenkens & Gilchrist in Dallas. "But the fact is the economies of Texas, Illinois, California, New York, and half the country would collapse if tomorrow we could click our fingers and have every undocumented worker out of the country. Construction, hospitality, the medical industry, manufacturing--all these key segments of our economy are dependent upon these people."
It's not just low-tech industries that use foreign workers; high-tech and entrepreneurial endeavors count on them, too. Regarding this group, the concern is not that they'll cross borders illegally; rather, it's that they'll stop seeing America as an immigrant-friendly place. Post-9/11 restrictions have added red tape to visa applications, for example, and already, foreign students are shying away from American schools. The number of foreign students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutes declined by 2.4% for the '03-'04 school year--the first decline since 1972. There's a growing perception overseas that the U.S. is inconvenient for foreign students, says Victor Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at the Association of International Educators. And that's going to hurt the American economy. "Attracting foreign students doesn't imply any disinvestment in Americans, because it's not a zero-sum game--particularly at the undergraduate level, most students pay their own way," Johnson says. "To the extent we bring in foreign science talent to the country, we're helping our scientific leadership and economic growth; a lot of these people end up staying here and doing great things for our economy, founding Silicon Valley firms, and all kinds of things like that." Moreover, the more foreign students that have roots here, the better American international relations will be.
Having so many bipartisan proposals on the table that differ so drastically is rare for a big issue such as this. That illegal immigrants are here to stay seems likely; that talented foreign workers help the American economy seems obvious. Whether the U.S. will attract or repel those foreign workers, and how the government should track them and care for them once they're here, should be one of the seminal issues of this Congressional term.