Why immigration won't be restricted

Congress appeared to be sowing the seeds for a stricter immigration policy when it began joint hearings May 5 on the recently released report of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.

Restrictionist forces have a powerful ally on Capitol Hill, Sen. Alan K. Simpson, Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Policy and a commission member. Simpson wants an absolute ceiling on the number of immigrants and refugees who move to the United States each year.

And Sen. Walter Huddleston, a Democrat, has introduced legislation that would establish an annual ceiling of 350,000 -- well below recent actual totals. Like the recommendations of the select commission, his bill stipulates criminal penalties for employers who hire illegal aliens.

Public opinion polls have shown that the overwhelming majority of Americans favor a more restrictionist immigration policy.

Finally, last year's highly publicized influx of 125,000 Cubans, combined with the Liberty City riots in Miami, heightened public awareness of newcomers to the United States.

But while there are ample political ingredients for a restrictionist position , significant change from the current liberal immigration policy is unlikely.

Why? Because business interests could successfully pressure the Reagan administration to maintain the status quo. Because the restrictionist forces -- including labor unions, law enforcement advocates, environmentalists, and population groups -- are not organized to press the case. And because future demographics may lead many to call for an influx of labor from Latin America to satisfy this country's labor needs.

Businesses that use immigrant labor --including agricultural and restaurant employers -- would almost surely oppose legislation prohibiting the hiring of illegal aliens, unless provided with some secure means of identifying an applicant's right to work in the United States. In the meantime, the administration has set up an immigration task force headed by Attorney General William French Smith that will issue a report to the President any day now.

"The anti-restrictionists [including such diverse groups as the Roman Catholic Church, civil libertarians, Hispanic groups, agribusiness and other employers] only have to drag their feet," says David North, a former Labor Department official who is a consultant on labor and immigration issues. "It's easier to resist something than to get something changed."

Domestic population figures portend a possible shortage in this country's work force by 1980. And, more distantly, the "dependency ratio" of actual workers to social security recipients is expected to decline to 2 to 1 by 2035, compared with a level of 5 to 1 in the early '60s. The question will be asked: how will the nation fill the expected shortfall in labor and also support a bulging elderly population?

Immigration pressures from the developing world, especially Latin America, should increase. In a study cited in the fall 1980 issue of Foreign Affairs, a report compiled at the Inter-American Development Bank said Latin America, the source of many United States immigrants, must create four million jobs a year to prevent its high rate of unemployment from rising.

To accommodate pressures from abroad, the select commission recommended that the number of legal immigrants admitted to the country annually be increased by two-thirds to 450,000 persons for five years and then reduced to 350,000. For purposes of family reunification, immediate relatives of US citizens would continue to be exempt from the limit. More than 800,000 persons -- including Cuban/Haitian entrants and refugees -- came to the United States last year, and over 500,000 came the two preceding years.

Restrictionists and pro-immigration forces have given the select commission's recommendations largely negative reviews. It was the outcry from these groups that stymied President Carter's plans to legalize the status of current illegal aliens and curb future illegal immigration.

In the future, agribusiness could become more inclined toward a restrictionist policy if there were, in addition to a secure worker identification, an expansion of the current "H 2" program under which about 30, 000 foreign workers are admitted on a seasonal or temporary basis for mostly agricultural jobs. The Labor Department must first certify that no domestic workers want the jobs.

Similarly, the Reagan administration appears interested in some form of guest worker program, under which workers from other countries would have the legal right to temporarily work and reside in the United States and pay taxes.

Yet, to many, developing an identification system means more government regulations and millions in government spending. Furthermore, any guest worker program would meet tremendous opposition from unions, religious organizations, and other worker-oriented groups who, as one observer notes, are looking for a Reagan proposal they could "trounce."

In any event, immigration issues will not be resolved quickly. In addition to domestic considerations, there will inevitably be concessions to populous Latin America countries important for their oil and trade with the United States. The net result of all this will likely be the maintenance of the status quo.

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