Comprehensive Immigration Reform: What Is It? Why Are We For It?

February 14, 2012

By Victor C Johnson

In 2004, NAFSA’s Board of Directors authorized the association to engage in the emerging debate over comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). We entered this debate because we believed three things.

First, a comprehensive bill would most likely be the vehicle for the provisions involving high-skilled immigration in which we were most interested; therefore, we had to be at the table when decisions regarding CIR were made. Second, a dysfunctional immigration regime placed limits on our ability to maintain a robust system of educational and scholarly exchange. And third, our immigration system was an important part of the face that the United States presented to the world:  In an era of global mobility, how could America attract the best international students and scholars if our immigration laws were pre-global age and our immigration debate screamed anti-foreign sentiment? We hold these beliefs even more strongly today, but as the debate has proceeded and gotten uglier, the association’s commitment to CIR in itself—as an expression of our most fundamental values—has grown more profound.

The concept of comprehensive immigration reform arises from two realities:  first, what we call “our  immigration problem” (more appropriately thought of as our immigration opportunity) consists of several interrelated issues, none of which can be addressed effectively without also addressing the others; second, different pieces of the issue are of primary concern to different constituencies, and it is difficult-to-impossible to put together a coalition to enact policy to address one issue without satisfying the constituencies whose primary concern is another issue. At the end of the day, the political calculus is:  If your issue gets resolved with my support, you won’t be there when I seek support for resolving my issue.

Although there is no authoritative definition of CIR, I think of it as consisting of three “pillars”:  enforcement (sometimes divided into border security and interior enforcement), visa reform (including employment-based visas—high-skilled immigration and agricultural employment—plus family-based immigration), and resolution of the status of some 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. Of these, the only one on which it is has been politically possible to make progress on is enforcement. Congress has been willing to devote extraordinary resources to fortifying our southwest border and deporting illegal immigrants, with some success. But even leaving aside the question of whether the benefits produced by border security are worth the enormous costs, the effort is ultimately doomed unless we recognize the link between border security and visa reform. Most illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America come here because employers want to hire them for jobs that American workers won’t take, in order to produce goods and services that American consumers want to purchase—cheaply. For most of these immigrants, comparable opportunities do not exist in their own countries. They enter illegally because legal means of entry do not exist due to our failure to balance the availability of employment-based visas with the availability of jobs seeking foreign labor. Thus this problem must be addressed through both border security and visa reform—i.e., comprehensively. Both this administration and the last one have sought to achieve—and take credit for—increased deportations. But that has caused a backlash because of the effect on families, many of which have both documented and undocumented members. Thus enforcement intersects with the issue of the status of the undocumented, again requiring comprehensive solutions.

The status of the undocumented is not amenable to a simple, one-dimensional solution either. First, these people perform the same necessary jobs that propel immigration in the first place. Second, precisely because of the tightening of the border, historic patterns of seasonal migration have given way to one-way migration whereby illegal immigrants who succeed in crossing the border settle here permanently, because if they return to their country of origin they might not be able to get back. They marry here, have children here, and disperse throughout the country. Thus most of our communities have immigrant families that are part documented and part undocumented. To tear millions of people from their families and deport them into what for most of them would amount to permanent exile would be both prohibitively expensive and unspeakably cruel. No serious person thinks this—or its euphemistic alternative, “self-deportation”—is feasible. For people with families here and no job prospects elsewhere, making life miserable for them won’t make them leave; it will just make them miserable.  There is no escape from the necessity of finding some way to normalize their status. Knowing that this is the most politically difficult and easily demagogued part of the immigration problem, those constituencies for whom it is the most important issue are unlikely to give their consent to any immigration reform that does not address it. Thus, the other parts of the problem cannot be addressed without addressing this part.

Among these issues, there are other “sub-issues” that are similarly inter-related. With respect to employment-based visas, high-skilled visas and agricultural-worker visas have different constituencies, and neither will consent to solving the other’s problem alone. Then there is the perennial question of skill-based immigration versus family-based immigration, each of which has passionate devotees that insist on being included in any reform package.  Everyone loves piecemeal immigration reform as long as their piece gets done first. But every time we are tempted to argue that CIR cannot be done so we might as well do this or that easy part first, we find that can’t be done either. No one wants to be the person whose issue is left last.

The obvious exception to this analysis is the DREAM Act, which is often considered the immigration measure that is most likely to pass separately, and which NAFSA strongly supports. One would think it would be noncontroversial; all it would do would be to hold harmless certain undocumented immigrants who were brought here as minors and have known no other home, but have no way to achieve legal status here. Yet is has not been possible so far to pass even that, and it may remain so unless DREAM is bundled with other issues.

NAFSA’s primary interest lies in high-skilled immigration—both green cards and temporary visas. That is who our universities hire, and those are the jobs that our international students will seek upon graduation. We have always supported measures to increase the availability of green cards and H-1B visas for high-skilled workers, and we will continue to do so. But we are also mindful of the reality that no effort to peel off that part of the problem and deal with it separately has succeeded in recent years, nor is it likely to. Thus we remain committed to a comprehensive solution—both for its own sake, and as a vehicle for making the United States more accessible to high-skilled talent.