About 15 million Americans are unemployed. Yet Washington allows businesses to bring in about 1 million foreigners a year to take supposedly short-term jobs that many jobless would leap at taking if they could.
It's a "ridiculous" situation, says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a Washington think tank that generally urges a lower level of immigration into the United States.
This year, the H-2B program alone will let more than 100,000 lower-skilled foreign workers come to the US as "temporary, seasonal, nonagricultural guest workers." Businesses like the program because the foreigners, who need the jobs in order to stay in the US, "shut up and do what they are told," says Mr. Krikorian.
But H-2B operates under a flawed assumption, says David Seminara, a former US Foreign Service officer and author of a CIS study on the program. The flawed assumption is that "Americans don't want to mow your lawn. They don't want to serve you your lobster roll sandwich during your summer holiday in Maine. They won't drive the trucks that bring food to the grocery store." In fact, many Americans would welcome such jobs.
President Obama, as a candidate, promised to push for "comprehensive" reform of immigration law, probably including amnesty for some of the perhaps 11 million illegal immigrants plus a boost in legal immigration.
With the GOP's victory in the US Senate race in Massachusetts Jan. 19, the chances of Congress tackling such a politically risky broad bill before the fall elections are about zero, Krikorian figures. One bill that might have a chance of passage is the DREAM legislation (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), which gives amnesty to illegal immigrants' illegal children if they have graduated from high school in the US.
US immigration policy is extremely controversial because of the clash of business, labor, and humanitarian interests.
Haiti is the latest example. In the wake of the horrific earthquake there in January, the Obama administration has given "temporary protected status" (TPS) to some 30,000 Haitians already in the US and facing deportation. They won't be sent back to Haiti for at least 18 months. TPS may apply to another 70,000 or more illegal Haitians, figures Krikorian.
He backs this humanitarian move but notes that as far as his organization can find, no previous refugee group granted TPS has ever been deported. Temporary amnesty is in fact permanent.
So far, the administration has made it clear that Haitians fleeing their desperate situation will not be admitted to the US as refugees. But if that clarity is replaced by mixed signals, expect a flood, warns Krikorian. "Things will spin out of control."
The Haitian disaster is raising concerns about a repeat of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when 125,000 Cubans left Cuba by boat and rickety raft to come to Florida and other parts of the US. That humanitarian operation had a political backlash.
At the time, President Carter was criticized because some of the refugees had been released from prisons and mental institutions. When some Cubans were taken to Arkansas, it led to riots and played a role in Bill Clinton's reelection defeat in the Arkansas governor's race, some analysts say.
Americans want to help Haiti with its fast-growing population of 9 million. But the humanitarian crisis is not likely to prompt Washington to come up with a comprehensive and consistent immigration policy.
•David R. Francis writes a weekly column.