Immigration Reform 2013: Bill May Be Delayed, But This Both Helps and Hurts Immigrants

ByWilliam Smith

Earlier this week I wrote about the so-called "Gang of Eight's" immigration reform bill. At the time, it seemed that the bill could be released to the Judiciary Committee by the end of this week, but it now looks like the bill might be delayed. The Gang of Eight have already missed several of their self-imposed deadlines, and Senator Rubio (R-Fla.) is vocal in his desire for the process to move slowly so that legislators can approach the many complex issues in the bill with the proper attention and carefulness they deserve. Senator Leahy —the chairman of the Judiciary Committee — however, has expressed his frustration with the behind-closed-doors approach which has heretofore characterized the bill's formulation. He recently announced that he would hold a hearing on immigration on April 17, by which time he hoped to have a bill.

Until the bill is finally released to the Judiciary Committee, the contents of the bill will remain murky, but we do know that the bill contains provisions to tighten border security, require U.S. business owners to check the immigration status of new employees, includes a path-to-citizenship program, and significantly alters the way the U.S. grants visas in the future. These are all major elements of any discussion of immigration reform, and some of them are more justifiable than others. In this article, I’d like to briefly address three of the issues the bill tackles.

1. Is increased border security really what is needed?

The Gang of Eight agrees that increasing border security ought to be the first step taken in immigration reform, but it is unclear that this is actually what we need. The main argument made to justify increased border security is that we need to stem the tide of immigrants, otherwise welfare programs and other public services would become overburdened and may collapse; both people from the left and right make this argument, with those on the left worried about the potential for collapse, and those on the right worried about increasing numbers of people dependent on welfare. Currently, however, poor immigrants utilize welfare programs at a lower rate than poor native citizens (partly due to the fact that many are ineligible to receive benefits) and when they do, they typically receive less money. So, unless the eligibility requirements for welfare were changed, it is unlikely that the stress on certain public services such as welfare would reach the extent that some think.

As a brief aside, if we really wanted to decrease the number of illegal immigrants, the best thing to do would be to scale back, if not end, the "War on Drugs." This policy directly contributes to the violence and instability in Mexico, which drives so many of its citizens north to the U.S.; if it were not for that, we would likely see lower illegal immigration.

2. Checking immigration status is antithetical to the freedom of association:

One of America’s most cherished principles is that of individual liberty — the right of individuals to make choices for themselves without being threatened, prevented, or punished by the government for doing so. Allowing individuals to act on their decisions is not only respectful, but a major precondition for prosperity and human flourishing. The freedom of association — the right to choose with whom one does and does not interact, and the nature of such interactions — is especially relevant in this context.

Suppose two people agree to enter into a relationship in which one gives the other their labor, and the other gives them a payment. The agreement is peaceful, consensual, and does not involve illegal activities. The result is an increase in wealth for not only the two parties, but you and me, in the form of whatever good or service is created. Should the fact that one person happens to not be recognized as a member of a special "club" (whose members are largely determined by historical factors) by one government prevent this relationship from existing? Does a member of these "clubs" have any more right to choose with whom he or she interacts than someone who is not? When others tell us who we can or cannot interact with, we become the tools of that person as opposed to free individuals, and society loses out. The bill's requirement for employers to check the immigration status of potential employees does exactly this. It declares that members of the "American club" have more freedom simply because they were lucky enough to be born on American soil or because they completed a contrived registration process. This flies in the face of "all men are created equal," individual liberty, and prosperity.

3. A path to citizenship is not unfair to the legal immigrants; the current immigration law is unfair to all immigrants:

One of the most common arguments against a path to citizenship is that it is unfair to legal immigrants. On the surface, this seems like a very persuasive argument: it is easy to imagine how difficult it must be to wait for years, pay substantial fees, etc., and then how frustrating it would be to see those who skipped all of that proceed to enjoy the benefits for which you have worked so hard and waited so long? Those who make this argument also speak about the need to uphold the rule of law and to ensure respect for the law. For these reasons, path-to-citizenship policies tend to be punitive and require illegal immigrants to wait several years.

But the real unfairness lies in our immigration policy itself. There are approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in this country, many of whom braved deserts, dangerous animals and humans, starvation, etc., to enter into the country. When this many people are willing to break the law and face these obstacles, one necessarily wonders if our immigration requirements are unreasonably burdensome. There are numerous dubious requirements in our immigration policy, but the long wait times (several years) for obtaining visas, green cards, and citizenship are among the most blatantly objectionable. If Americans truly believe in freedom and opportunity, we will not dictate to peaceful individuals when they may or may not come into our country. By severely curtailing the freedom to travel and association, our immigration policy prevent immigrants from improving their lives as well as ours. The harder we make it for people to come to our country and work with us, the more potential economic and cultural wealth we lose.

A truly just and desirable immigration system would be one that respected individual's rights to travel and associate freely and sought to enable immigrants and citizens alike to benefit from the former's presence, while balancing this with the legitimate interest in protecting individuals from criminals. The Gang of Eight's bill only seems to do this to an extent, mostly through the path to citizenship program. The emphasis on increasing border security is misplaced, and the requirement for employers to check immigration status violates individuals' right to free association and prevents wealth creation.

Given the contemporary political climate, it is unlikely that there will ever be a fully just immigration policy. That said, the bill’s contents are far from set in stone, and there is still time to attempt to persuade legislators to improve it.