Why a dormant immigration debate may flare up

Study after study on American immigration policy calls for drastic reform. But Congress does little to change the policy.

"Politically, it's still not touchable," says Steven Camarota, author of a new report by the Center for Immigration Studies.

The nation's foreign-born population has tripled since 1970 to about 28.4 million today. As 800,000 legal immigrants and another 100,000 to 300,000 illegal immigrants (net) enter the country each year, America's population has become increasingly diverse.

But each successive wave of immigrants has fared worse economically than the one that preceded it, finds Mr. Camarota. As a result, immigrants that have been in the country between 10 and 20 years are much poorer, less likely to be homeowners, and less likely to become citizens than the previous generation of immigrants.

The basic problem, long noted, lies in a huge decline in the level of education of immigrants relative to natives.

Some 34.4 percent of established immigrants lack a high school education - more than three times the rate for natives.

A new immigration policy, holds Camarota, should require immigrants to have "the skills or ability to compete in the American economy" and there should be fewer of them.

Another new study by a group of business leaders and university presidents, the Committee for Economic Development, also urges "increasing the number of skill-based employment visas" relative to other visa categories.

Most immigrants get family reunification visas, and are relatives of those already admitted.

Public-opinion polls show a desire for fewer immigrants. So how come Congress does not attempt serious reform?

To Dan Stein, a veteran immigration expert, the prime reason nowadays is political.

Some Democrats have bought into "demographic power politics." Noting that immigrants tend to vote Democratic, they push for more rapid processing of citizenship applications of immigrants, even if some criminals slip through the system. And they call for a mass amnesty for illegal immigrants, allowing them to get green cards quickly - and then citizenship.

If the level of immigration continues at its high level, the Democrats could realize their dream of excluding Republicans from power for the next 40 years through a coalition of labor, immigrants, and "soccer moms," says Mr. Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington public policy group.

Aware of this risk, the Republicans are talking of a "guest worker" program. Texas Sen. Phil Gramm suggests allowing Mexican workers to enter the US on an annual or seasonal basis, with year-by-year extensions. If here three years, they would have to return to Mexico for a year before reapplying for entry.

For Republicans, one advantage would be that these guest workers would be "permanent nonvoters," says Stein.

Another advantage would be that Republican-inclined farmers in the Sun Belt states would get the cheap labor they want. So would owners of meat processing plants, hotels, and restaurants.

But, adds Stein, Republicans seeking a guest-worker program may be buying the rope to hang themselves politically. History, from the Israelis fleeing Egypt in the biblical Exodus to the Gastarbeiters of postwar Germany, shows that such programs haven't worked out as well as expected. In modern times, the "guests" stay on, eventually getting to vote.

Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, has talked of a common market for labor with the US. Stein says such an open market for labor would be "untenable," resulting in even lower wages for less-skilled Americans - "a great race to the bottom."

Various studies have shown that immigration is one reason why less-educated Americans have made out relatively poorly in the last 20 years or so compared to those with some college.

One test of a guest-worker-type program has started, especially in California. In October 2000, Congress voted a sharp increase to 195,000 in the annual number of temporary immigration visas for high-technology workers for the years 2001 to 2003.

Now dotcoms and other high-tech firms are laying off workers by the thousands. The much-talked-of shortage of these workers is shrinking, if not gone. Will those with H-1B visas go home?

Stein doubts it. It is not even clear they will be laid off before American high-tech workers.

For the nation as a whole, immigration issues have been somewhat dormant because unemployment has been so low. If the slowdown deepens and the number of jobless swells, the subject could turn hot again.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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