The unseen effects of proposed immigration reform

Although Congress is moving closer to passing massive immigration reform, many people have not realized that a version of the legislation in question would disrupt a highly successful program and tamper with fundamental American principles.

The Simpson-Mazzoli Bill, as the package of reforms is known, is most often described as a measure that would curtail future flows of illegal aliens and give legal status to those already in the United States.

While these are important questions for debate, many have not realized that the bill goes much further. By addressing the size and nature of legal as well as illegal immigration, it threatens to alter one of the most successful federal programs of the past three decades, and to meddle with principles basic to American society.

The bill has already passed the Senate and the House of Representatives committee process. It needs only passage by the full House and signature by the President to become law. Floor action in the House is scheduled for this week. Provisions for legal entry to the United States are among the most complex in US law, but the principles that underlie them are relatively simple. Current statutes allow for immigration of parents, spouses, and children of US citizens without numerical limitation and for about 270,000 entry slots for close relatives of legal aliens, brothers and sisters of citizens, and a small number of workers of special skill who take jobs they are uniquely able to fill. In practice, these laws bring about 450,000 newcomers to the US every year.

Our current immigration law stresses family values that have always been paramount in American society. In this way, the US has staked out a position unique in the world. The few other nations that maintain generous immigration policies, such as Canada or Australia, admit people on the basis of both their ties to relatives and the job and educational skills they possess. Only the US holds the importance of families so high that having a parent, spouse, child, or sibling in this country is regarded as by itself sufficient reason to grant entry. In an era of great confusion over family policy, our immigration laws remain one area where the principles for which we stand are given strong and unambiguous expression.

But the US maintains a family-oriented immigration policy for reasons that go beyond abstract principles and goodwill. Evidence from several sources indicates that legal newcomers benefit the US economically, socially, and culturally. The contributions made by prominent individuals like the businessman An Wang or the musician Zubin Mehta are obvious. Less apparent to the general public, but no less important, are the positive benefits to society from the typical Chinese small business man, the Latin skilled worker, the Soviet technician, or the European restaurateur. Research has discovered that legal immigrants equal average US earnings by their third year in this country, and surpass them within five years. Without legal immigrants, we would have less economic productivity and fewer jobs.

The diverse nature of current legal immigration is also important. Over 40 percent come from Latin America, about one-third from Asia, just over 15 percent from Europe, and a small but growing number from Africa. The US is still the place where people from around the globe feel they can realize their dreams, and we continue to benefit from their aspirations and skills.

If legal immigration is so vital, beneficial, and family oriented, why are moves now being made to reduce it? Close analysis of immigration debates will show that pressure to cut back on legal entry arises not from problems with newcomers themselves, but rather from frustration over our inability to curtail illegal immigration. Sharp debate has arisen over how to stop unauthorized flows into the US in a way that is both effective and does not threaten the civil liberties of aliens and citizens. Not finding a satisfactory answer to this challenge, some policymakers have proposed that we at least reduce flows that we do control, which are refugees fleeing oppression and legal immigrants reuniting with their families. Dissatisfaction with our policy toward illegal entry has produced a backlash that threatens all newcomers.

This reaction may be understandable, but it would result in bad public policy. Cutting back on family-based immigration would do nothing to curtail illegal entry. It would, however, deprive the country of an inflow that has proved to be economically and culturally beneficial and numerically controlled. We should vigorously resist efforts to impose arbitrary and unnecessary cuts on family-based legal inflow.

The Simpson-Mazzoli Bill as passed in the Senate does not make this important distinction. It proposes not only to curtail illegal entry but also to impose severe cutbacks on legal, family-based inflow. It would do so both by eliminating current entry preferences for married brothers and sisters of US citizens and by imposing a rigid and arbitrary cap on all immigration that, for the first time, would include parents, husbands, wives, and children of citizens. Neither of these provisions is necessary. As noted before, this inflow now is by no means out of control; any reduction in it would simply limit the many benefits we now gain through legal entry.

If these Senate provisions were enacted, the big losers would be immigrants who now come to join their brothers and sisters in the US. This would deal a severe blow to newcomers from Italy, Greece, Korea, and the Philippines, as well as parts of Latin America. It would also close the possibility of future family-based flows from the Soviet Union and Iran, should these countries become open again for emigration. It would eliminate, in short, some of our most productive sending sources.

The Simpson-Mazzoli Bill, as it now stands in the House of Representatives, does not contain these provisions. It wisely maintains our current policy on legal immigration. As the bill moves to the House floor, however, amendments will be offered to bring it into conformity with the more restrictive Senate version.

These amendments should be defeated and the approach of the House adopted. Family unification is one aspect of our federal law that works as intended and enhances the quality of our national life. We should not tamper with it.

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