Barack Obama proposes simultaneously tightening security on the Mexican border while encouraging undocumented aliens to "come out of the shadows" and eventually have the opportunity to gain citizenship. Employers would have to verify the immigration status of their hires or face penalties, but Obama would also reform at least some of the work visa programs.


Barack Obama would increase legal immigration and encourage those here illegally to "get right with the law." Immigrants in good standing could "pay a fine, learn English, not violate the law, and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens." Foreign-born soldiers who've fought overseas would have a fast-track toward citizenship.

At the same time, Obama pledges to "preserve the integrity of our borders," and would deploy additional "infrastructure" and law enforcement agents "equipped with better technology and real-time intelligence."

Employer checks: Obama supports an Electronic Employment Verification System and promises to "crack down on employers that hire undocumented immigrants." The transition team offers no details, but in 2007 Obama joined other senators in attempting to amend immigration legislation with a proposal on employer verification. Obama's amendment had some features that small business advocates like: For one thing, it wouldn't hold a firm liable for the behavior of a contractor or subcontractor, and it carved out exceptions for firms acting in good faith. On the other hand, it would have levied steep civil fines that rise quickly from $5,000 for the first violation to $75,000.

Work visa programs: Obama seeks unspecified "improvements" in U.S. visa programs. He would "allow immigrants who earn their degrees in the U.S. to stay, work, and become Americans over time." He would also "examine our ability to increase the number of permanent visas we issue to foreign skilled workers" -- perhaps, he told TechCrunch, in place of "a stopgap increase in the number of H-1B visas." He appears to express ambivalence about that program, noting that 42.5 percent of new H-1B arrivals have just a bachelor's degree or its equivalent. "We can and should produce more Americans with bachelor's degrees that lead to jobs in technology."

The Obama Record: Though Obama's plan embraces both border enforcement and a path to citizenship, the president-elect emphasized the path to citizenship on the stump and this is also reflected in his legislative record. In 2007, he co-sponsored the DREAM Act, which would make it easier for undocumented children to stay in the country, get higher education benefits, and ultimately become citizens. "His voting record would tilt in favor of illegal immigrants and away from enforcement," says Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports restricted immigration. In 2007, Obama voted for several amendments to the comprehensive immigration bill that sought to limit temporary visa programs. "More often than not, the Democrats, because of their ties to labor, have been reluctant to approve these various types of guest worker programs," says Mehlman.


There's no consensus among economists about whether immigrants fill jobs Americans won't take, or simply drive down wages here. There does seem to be agreement among policy analysts that past efforts at immigration reform have not stemmed the tide of the undocumented. In particular, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 coupled stricter enforcement with amnesty, and those who favor restricting immigration attack the McCain-Kennedy bill for repeating past mistakes. Says FAIR's Mehlman: "based on history, we know that the enforcement provisions would actually never have been enforced."

Business advocates have come to accept electronic employment verification systems, but the National Federation of Independent Business, among others, favors certain provisions to limit the small firms' exposure, including a safe harbor to protect employers from the actions of contractors or subcontractors, an exemption from punishment for a firm violating the laws in good faith, and smaller fines for smaller businesses. The legislation Obama proposed met some of these objectives.

Published on: Aug 22, 2008
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