A Way Across the Border
By John Tierney
The New York Times
The good news for immigration reform is that both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans are denouncing a plan put forward last week. When both sides care enough to complain, at least they’re talking.
This plan comes from Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, the Republican who has spent the summer selling the idea to his party’s leaders on Capitol Hill and in the White House. With their encouragement, he joined a Senate Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchison, in unveiling a shrewd compromise between the House’s approach to immigration — seal the border! — and the Senate’s plan for a guest-worker program.
To mollify the border hawks, Hutchison and Pence proposed a guest-worker program that wouldn’t start for two years, and then only if the president certified that new border security measures had been carried out. Although some Democrats are complaining publicly about the delay, this isn’t a deal-breaker, because it would take a couple of years to set up the guest-worker program anyway.
To get a guest-worker visa, immigrants would have to apply in their home countries. That’s another concession to the House Republicans, who accused the Senate of effectively offering amnesty to illegal immigrants by letting them remain in America while they applied for a visa.
By making them go home, Pence can reassure the Republican base that lawbreakers aren’t being rewarded, they’re just being given the same chance to apply for a visa as any worker in their home country. Anyone in a Latin American country with a free-trade agreement with the United States could get a visa if an American employer promised to hire him.
But would illegal immigrants be willing to go home? Democratic critics of Pence, like Senator Edward Kennedy, warn that immigrants would be too afraid of losing their jobs, and in many cases their families, to risk being stranded in their home countries waiting for a visa.
That’s a valid concern, especially if federal bureaucrats had to process all those applications. Immigration officials are already swamped with paperwork. If millions of illegal immigrants suddenly started applying for a new guest-worker program, they could end up waiting years for visas.
But Pence has an ingenious solution: guarantee workers that their visa applications will be processed within two weeks. The federal government would oversee the process and run background checks for security risks, but most of the routine work — processing applications, doing medical checks, matching applicants with employers — would be handled at “Ellis Island centers” in Latin American countries run by American private companies or agencies.
Pence thinks the most likely operators of these centers would be companies experienced in placing job applicants, like Monster.com. But some of Pence’s fans in the White House and on Capitol Hill envision letting other groups get involved too — perhaps churches or labor unions or trade associations.
If an applicant already had an employer willing to hire him, the center would confirm it. If he were looking for a job, the center would see if any employers were interested. Once word got out that there was a quick way to get a visa, illegal immigrants would want to come out of the shadows, and their employers would be under new pressure to make sure workers had the visas.
The guest workers would be able, after 17 years, to apply for permanent residency. Some Democrats fear that after the long wait it might still be impossible for the immigrants to become citizens, but Pence says the system can be set up to make sure there are enough slots for them as long as they follow the law.
“I don’t think the American people are very concerned about giving legal immigrants the choice of permanent status or citizenship in the future,” Pence says. “What concerns Americans is giving people amnesty for breaking the law right now.”
Pence, the chairman of the Republican conservative caucus in the House, figures that of the more than 110 members in the caucus, a third are dead set against his proposal. But he estimates that a third are undecided, and a third are leaning in favor.
Getting them and the rest of Congress to pass this proposal in time for the election won’t be easy — certainly not as simple as railing at illegal immigrants, as Republicans have been doing in their interminable hearings around the country. But if they want to show voters they can do something besides complain, there’s a deal to be made.
Photo credit: John Tierney. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)