The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
A Goal for Immigration Reform: Safe, Legal, and Rare

A bipartisan “group of eight” (tired of that phrase yet?) senators announced a new plan to reform immigration today. As Obama prepares to give a speech in Las Vegas tomorrow outlining his plans for immigration, both parties seem willing to put aside their differences to chase the Hispanic vote. The document sketches out a comprehensive reform that is “tough but fair”, a phrase repeated four times over five pages, so you know they mean it.

The group’s first and most important proposal is a path to citizenship for current immigrants living illegally in the U.S. To earn probationary legal status, illegals would need to register, pay back taxes and a fine, and get background-checked. They would then go to the back of the green card line, where they would have to pay more taxes and pass English and civics tests.

Minors who entered the U.S. illegally would be exempt from many of the restrictions faced by their parents or guardians. Agricultural workers who “commit to the long term stability of our nation’s agricultural industries” will also earn exemptions (though it is still unclear what this actually means) because their role is so important to U.S. food security.

Highly skilled workers will have an easier path to citizenship. As the authors note, failure to attract the best and the brightest “unarguably discourages innovation and economic growth.” Immigrants who get a master’s degree or doctorate from an American university in STEM fields will be awarded green cards.

Though the political stars seem to be aligning in a rare moment of bipartisanship, the situation remains complicated. The U.S. has already had an amnesty for illegals, back in the Reagan era. If the government opens a path to citizenship, then it must also deal with the consequences—potentially an immense moral hazard if future illegal immigrants think it is just a matter of time before another amnesty (and another, and so on).

The immigration problem also has to be seen in a regional context. Asian immigration is now larger than Hispanic immigration, but the Pacific is wide enough that wholesale illegal immigration from the Pacific Rim is not a critical problem. Economic growth in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean is important to the U.S., but we haven’t done nearly enough to think about how we can create a prosperous region within which migration is both relatively unfettered and relatively limited. In an ideal world, immigration would be safe, legal and rare—and that is the way policy should be pointing.

The GOP has lost so much credibility by taking a simplistic approach to a complex problem that it is currently unable to offer much in the way of constructive leadership on the issue. And the Democrats seem to think that pandering is a substitute for policy. Neither approach has what we need, but it’s just possible that with a bipartisan approach we’ll have more of an effort to control the frontier than Democrats alone would offer and a more comprehensive and generous approach to illegals than Republicans on their own would provide. That’s still not enough, but it’s much better than nothing.

In the meantime, Via Meadia is going to do what we can to promote a more constructive national discussion on how our region (North America, Central America and the Caribbean) can become more stable, more prosperous, more integrated and more free—without creating a western hemisphere counterpart of the EU.

Published on January 28, 2013 3:46 pm