Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Compromise or Stalemate

09/28/2010 10:21 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the main obstacles to comprehensive immigration reforms is the debate about granting permanent resident status to the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States. Proponents feel that granting permanent resident status to illegal immigrants is a moral question or a question of human rights. To advocates of this view, granting permanent legal status to hardworking, law-abiding individuals and families who are productive members of our society is simple justice.

Opponents feel that granting legal status to illegal immigrants may increase the growing income inequality in the United States. Further, the educational and social service needs of currently undocumented immigrant families may place an undue burden on many communities. There is fear that granting amnesty to illegal immigrants would encourage more illegal immigration. Opponents feel that they are defending what they perceive as the culture and traditions of the United States.

Polls show that almost 70 percent of Americans support the Arizona bill that requires police to check the legal residence of persons stopped. Polls also show that Americans are about evenly divided as to whether immigrants illegally in the United States should be granted legal status. Further, polls show that about 70 percent of Americans believe that illegal immigrants are a burden on U.S. taxpayers. Given the current state of public opinion and the current political climate, it is unlikely that legislation that would give permanent residence status to 11 million people would pass.

If the immigration debate is framed as a conflict between two competing ethical points of view, then a compromise solution will probably be impossible to achieve. An alternative is to try to reach an immigration policy based on pragmatic grounds, concentrating on the question of what is good for the country, but is also fair to our illegal immigrant population. A pragmatic immigration policy should accomplish four goals. First, it should make possible the enforcement of immigration laws at a reasonable cost. Second, it should not create incentives for future illegal immigration. Third, it should bring the existing illegal population under the protection of the law. Fourth, it should create the mechanism to acquire the information necessary to formulate rational long run immigration policy.

A substantial majority of illegal immigrants come to the United States for economic reasons. Denying illegal immigrants access to formal labor markets is an effective deterrence to further illegal immigration. Democrats in the U.S. Senate have proposed a plan for immigration reform that includes replacing the current Social Security card with a Social Security identification card embedded with biometric information that would be extremely difficult to forge. Issuing such a secure card and strictly enforcing its use by employers would enable the government to largely bar illegal immigrants from the formal labor market.

The adoption of a biometric Social Security card would also make possible a compromise that gives illegal immigrants a temporary residential status. A grace period would be created so that those individuals currently using illegal documents could obtain and submit a valid Social Security card to their employer. During this grace period, individuals with a claim for political asylum or other causes that would block their deportation would be required to file their claims. After the grace period expires, only the new biometric Social Security cards could be accepted by employers and a fast-track system of deportation could be implemented for those individuals who did not register.

Once illegal immigrants are registered, permanent repatriation dates could be assigned by a lottery. These repatriation dates could be spaced over a period of two to 10 years. Spacing the repatriation over a period of years does three important things. First, it mitigates the hardship on immigrants by giving them a set date for departure; second, it minimizes disruption in the labor market; and third, the number of people being repatriated in any one year is small enough so there should be sufficient resources to enforce the law. Employers would know the date on which an employee would no longer be eligible to work legally in the United States. As a backup, the Social Security Administration could send a notification letter by registered mail to the employer.

The registration process also helps in another way. There is now very limited information about the number and demographic characteristics of illegal immigrants currently in the United States. The registration process can be used to collect demographic data such as age, education, and language skills and such data could be used in fashioning long-term immigration policy. It is possible that we may wish to admit more immigrants; if so, a selection process must be put into place. Holders of the temporary work permits who have the qualifications could be allowed to participate in a second lottery for permanent residence. Relevant qualifications might be such factors as proficiency in English, absence of a criminal record, or specific job skills; lotteries could be weighted to consider factors that reflect the needs of the U.S. labor market. These subsequent lotteries could serve two purposes: they would be a way of augmenting the permanent labor force, and they would provide incentives for holders of temporary permits to learn English and avoid criminal behavior.

If the current illegal population were registered under this proposed compromise, many problems related to undocumented immigration would be solved. The existing population of illegal workers would be brought under the umbrella of law and would be protected from criminal and economic exploitation. There would be sufficient resources to enforce immigration laws. Denying illegal immigrants access to the legitimate labor market reduces the incentives for future illegal immigration. It would be possible to collect the necessary data to formulate a rational and well-informed immigration policy.