Fits and Starts: The Reid-Schumer-Graham Immigration Proposal

07/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Having twice read through the Reid-Schumer-Menendez immigration blueprint circulated this week, I am surprised by many of the provisions, including how it deals with state immigration laws, family reunification, and temporary work visas. Certainly the plan is only a rough draft, and without actual legislative text it is hard to tell how many of the provisions will actually make it into a final law. While the proposal would go a long way toward reforming the immigration system, worryingly, it continues many of the current inequities, and leaves many questions unanswered.

Local Laws: Ostensibly in response to Arizona's tough new immigration law, SB1070, the plan states "because the federal government will have fulfilled its obligation to secure America's borders, states and municipalities will be prohibited from enacting their own rules and penalties relating to immigration, which could undermine federal policies." Fine, but how far should we go to tamp down on innovation? Will this new policy, for example, open to legal challenge state and local laws to help integrate immigrants? What about sanctuary city designations, or legislation designed to regulate day-laborer sights? While not all state and local immigration laws are in line with federal priorities, we should think twice before severely constricting state and municipal variation.

Family Reunification: Even more ambiguous, the blueprint claims that the current visa backlogs in the family categories will be cleared in eight years. How this backlog will be wiped away though is unclear from the text. The provisions would allow the spouses and children of legal permanent residents to enter outside of numerical limitations as "immediate relatives," (an important change, and one of the more egregious omissions of the current system,) and would raise the per-country limit on the number of immigrants that can enter the U.S. every year. But the longest delays are currently in the fourth preference for the brothers and sisters of citizens, with waiting periods as long as twenty-three years. Equally troublesome is the fact that earned legalization for undocumented immigrants relies on this eight-year figure, allowing for adjustment of status only once these waiting lists have been cleared.

Temporary Work Visas: The system creates a new category of H2-C temporary work visas, with an annual cap that to be adjusted based on unemployment and the state of the U.S. economy. This new visa requires that American companies make sure that there are no U.S. citizens available to do the job before hiring an immigrant, and allows for "portability" - the ability to change jobs without losing your visa - after one year of employment. Temporary workers are currently chained to their employers, and risk being kicked out of the country if they lost their job, or are fired for such things as speaking out against wage and labor abuses. Allowing lateral job movement is critical to safeguarding the rights and safety of immigrant workers. If H2-C visas can have portability (with appropriate safeguards that an immigrant will not simply enter the country with one job, and quickly move to another,) why not extend the provisions to the other temporary categories, such as the H1-Bs for the highly skilled, and H2s for the low skilled?

Finally the H2-C category contains a loophole that states that even if no visas are available, employers can still hire an immigrant worker if they pay an additional fee; guarantee a higher wage; and go through additional steps to demonstrate need and inability to find Americans to fill the job. While I applaud the flexibility that the blueprint is attempting to introduce into immigration policy, doesn't this proposal open up a potentially unlimited number of temporary work visas?

In all, the twenty-six page document jams in a number of different proposals, including laughable ones such as a provision that "noncitizens in removal hearings will be required to inform the government of their whereabouts at all times." Does this line mean that those in removal will be required to wear ankle-monitors? Or will there be a twenty-four hour hotline for immigrants to call into? Equally suspect is the fact that the document spends roughly ten out of twenty-six pages on biometric identification and employment verification, but only one line on the DREAM Act (for undocumented students,) and makes only two short mentions of the AgJOBS bill (for seasonal agricultural workers.) Securing our borders, providing a path to legalization, and reforming the visa system are all equally and deeply intertwined with one another, and I hope that the Senators do not lose sight of each of these three issues when crafting a bill to introduce to Congress.

Philip E. Wolgin is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at UC Berkeley. He is currently writing his dissertation on the development of the modern system of immigration and refugee policy.