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The Great American Immigration Debate: The legal quagmire of legals

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The title is a bit of a hyperbole, as arguments often tend to be in the good ole US of A, but over the last few days out here, the hot-button issue dominating the news stories has certainly been immigration. For those outside this country or those who have not been following the story, the issues stem from recent efforts by the US law-making bodies, the House and the Senate, to carry out a host of immigration reforms. While everyone agrees that such reforms are long overdue, the crux of the debate is the effect these new laws may have on about twelve million immigrants who are in the country illegally, a majority of them being Mexicans. Depending on which version of the proposed laws get accepted, the consequences vary from severely restricting, penalizing and even deporting illegal immigrants (and includes fining those who employ them) to granting them an amnesty that would make them legal overnight. As an aside, I should mention that the word ‘amnesty’ itself has been quite controversial. Politicians who support amnesty are loathe to use it even though I am not sure what else to call a ‘guest worker’ program that will allow the illegal to stay here for six years legally and work their way to citizenship through (sarcasm alert!!)a very difficult process of paying 2000$ in fine and learning English (oh the horror!). (New York Times, on the other hand thinks this is not an amnesty from a different viewpoint)

Getting back to the point, present day immigration in America is a very complicated issue. One could even begin the discussion by going back to the puritans who came here as pilgrims. Megan McArdle at Asymmetrical Information neatly sums up part of the immigration history (mostly from the Irish perspective, but I think it covers the gist), while arguing for an open immigration policy. A quick search will land a host of such articles; so I will not attempt to discuss the political, economic and cultural impact of a large population of low wage-earners from different countries in the US. The rest of this post will be personal takes on the current debate (derived mainly from listening to NPR reports and reading some blogs). I will also talk about the problems being faced by legal immigrants and potential immigrants (like me) and much of that will come from personal experiences. These issues trouble me a lot and I often feel conflicted myself- so pardon me if it sound incoherent at times.

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America, the land of immigrants (‘Give me your poor, tired……huddled masses‘ and all that jazz), seems to be deeply divided over what to do exactly with these 12 million odd illegals. They are here already, and many of them have risked inhuman conditions and even death to get into the US, mainly to escape poverty (and for some, political persecution) and realize the ‘American Dream’. They do help, among other things, in keeping food and house prices down by working for cheap wages in farms and at construction sites. You simply cannot wake up one morning and decide to round up all of them and send them home. It is obviously not a practical solution (someone mentioned that it would take buses lined up all the way from San Diego, California to Anchorage, Alaska to fit them all in). Also, as Fareed Zakaria1 pointed out in the Daily Show recently, curbing immigration is not really an American way. Europeans have tried to severely restrict immigration and look at what has happened to them – unassimilated and severely maladjusted societies. On the other hand, the ‘amnesty’ option might encourage more people to come through the borders knowing that the US government will make them legal sooner or later. As I will come to later in this post, it also sends a wrong message to those in Mexico and elsewhere that are waiting to enter US in a legal manner and undergoing various bureaucratic hassles. It shows that you can circumvent the laws of a country and eventually get away with it. So does a rational middle of the road approach exist at all – is it possible that some law tending towards it will be enacted?

Unfortunately, since this is an important election year in the US, any kind of rational debate has been hijacked by political grandstanding by the major parties. The politicians have clouded a already complex issue with rhetorics of patriotism, jingoism, poverty, rich-poor divide et al. The Democrats by and large are supporting the amnesty option, at the small risk of alienating the African American and low-income voters. The Republicans however are divided on the issue themselves. On one hand, entry of illegal Mexican into the country shows that the US has a major border problem, which is a security issue. And if anything, the Republican simply cannot afford to be soft on security. They cannot be soft on law and order either, and therefore granting legal status to law-breakers is not an option. On the other hand, businesses, which form a large fraction of Republican base, like the illegal population because it gives them better profit margins through low-wage workers. Additionally, I suspect (and others agree) that in the long run, the large number of Hispanics will eventually become a conservative vote base – they are hard-working, family-oriented and deeply religious.

At a personal level, I am like the rest of the US, conflicted on this issue. On one side, these people took great pains to get here. Some may suffer political repercussions if sent home. All they are trying to do is earn a decent living and make sure their children get a good life. Isn’t that most of us want in life as well? But then, I lost some of this sympathy after watching these protests that took place in Los Angeles and other places in the country. I was really surprised by some of these marches. Crowds waving Mexican flags anddemanding that they are allowed to stay in the US, even when they have broken a law. On top of that, the well entrenched Spanish media seemed to be egging them on. All this sounds quite extreme.

More on this lack of sympathy in a bit. First, getting back to a possible solution. Frankly speaking, I admit that I am stumped. Commentator Robert Reich suggested on radio, that tough enforcement of labor laws may be a solution. Most businesses that hire illegals also tend to subject them to lower than minimum wages and inhuman, illegal work conditions. So catch the businesses on violating the labor laws. But I do not understand how that enforcement is different from making sure they don’t hire an illegal in the first place? I have also heard about increasing minimum wages so that Americans themselves will be ready to take up these jobs therefore driving the illegals out. Again, goes back to the enforcement issue. It might be easier to enforce some rules such as close scrutiny of social security number – making sure everyone provides a valid one for employment. Also, maybe stop issuing driver’s license and other forms of ID for illegals and providing them benefits such as tuition waivers for their kids. Helping Mexico become economically stronger sounds like a good advice – you do not see too many Candians trying to get into and work in USA illegally. But this will happen only in the long run. Certainly there does not appear to be any quick fix for the near future.

However, quite unfortunately lost in this uproar, is the sorry state of legal immigration. Other than a short segment by Chris Farrell on NPR’s Marketplace Morning Report, I haven’t heard anybody talk about it – even though the proposed laws addresses this issue as well. The system is so screwed up that anytime I think about it, I feel overwhelmed – first with anger and then with despair. It is difficult to figure out where to start. Well firstly, take the case of students or workers who are just trying to come and study or take up a job in the US. For people from India and China, countries not really at the forefront of sponsoring terrorism, many of them are subjected to what is called a VISA MANTIS, by which they need to undergo a security clearance before their visa can be approved. This results in a delay of a month or two and much uncertainty in the minds of the people. Secondly, look at the ridiculously low quota of visa for foreign skilled workers. Even after announcing some additional visas for those who have advanced degree from the US, there is a shortfall every year.

Finally take legal permanent residency or the famous ‘green card’ (which is actually colored orange!). For most people from India or China, the wait to get a green card is about five to six years due to something called ‘retrogression’. During this period of wait, you are not allowed to change jobs. Travel outside the country is restricted unless you continually go back to your home country to get a new visa. For people in the scientific research field, it also means that your grant support is rather limited since the major chunk of such support comes from the government and is restricted for residents and citizens. Additionally, the whole process is extremely confusing, with even lawyers handling them on a regular basis not always clear about the rules. On top of that, even if you get approved for the card, you may not actually get it in your hand for a long time without a background security check. This colleague of mine has been apparently undergoing a background check for the last two years! The guy, a Russian, is as mild mannered as you can find and would not hurt the proverbial fly. To be fair, the FBI does not know him personally and does need to go through a certain process. But two years ? A country that is supposedly the most powerful in the world with access to some of the best technologies cannot do a background check in two years! Give me a break. But, such is reality. For a similar but more high profile case check this article by Ilya Shapiro, a Washington lawyer.

Unfortunately, the green card and H1B visa numbers are also often used by some extreme anti-immigration groups as political red herrings. Just to confuse the immigration debate. Like today morning I heard a South Dakota congressman ranting about how increasing the number of green card visas will take jobs away from Americans, increase illegals and accelerate the apocalypse! (ok the last bit was feeble attempt at a joke). ‘No!’ I wanted to shout – you stupid *&^# – you get a H1B visa or a green card only after a very rigorous three-stage screening process, much of which ensures that no suitable Americans were found for the job. Also H1B workers or permanent residents do not work for lower than usual wages – you have to make sure that they are being paid equal wages or risk penalization (and in this case, it is much easier to enforce the law). The only complaint you can make is that the companies have a hold over people who are waiting for their green cards – they know that the employee cannot change jobs at this stage. This can lead to abuse of the employee in form of not giving enough raise, denying promotions etc. But that’s again a problem for the employee rather than a big advantage for the employer.

The system as it stands, leaves a large population of highly educated and skilled professionals including engineers, technologists, business administrators, scientists and doctors in the lurch, facing an uncertain future. They work here for six, seven years – contribute significantly towards the improvement of American society (and often to human progress in general), pay all their taxes, including Medicare and Social Security (which for Indians you never get to see if you return home or your permanent residency gets denied). Note that illegals by the very nature of their non-legal status can usually skimp taxes. In return, there is hardly any representation for their cause (wasn’t the whole American War of Independence fought over the ‘taxation without representation’ issue?) and you are always under a cloud regarding your future in the country. I have heard about cases where some people had to leave just because their paperwork was not properly handled by the clerks at the USCIS! Meanwhile, another section of immigrants are being told – come here illegally, work in this country for a while, have school kids skip classes and take out protest marches, and you will be allowed to stay here with a slap on the wrist! So excuse me, if I am not altogether sympathetic.

I am not saying that legal aliens working in offices and laboratories are more important than the illegals working in the farms and the construction sites. Actually, both are important for a robust, thriving economy. But, at least make that importance equal. Also, perhaps the bureaucratic shenanigans that the legals are subjected to are less severe than the physical dangers of those trying to come in illegally – but should there be a punishment for trying to use regular channels? Still you won’t see too many of us bunking work and marching down Pennsylvania Avenue demanding that we be given permanant residency without any questions asked.

And before ending – a link to an excellent debate on the Becker-Posner blog regarding legal immigration.

PS – I am avoiding the whole debate here about how problems in legal immigration will hurt American companies in the long run in an increasingly competitive global economy. I am also not going to go into the relative merits and demerits (or even the perceived patriotic symbolism) of going back to India versus staying in the US – that will take another very long post.

I will update with some links for the latter part of the post later in the day.

UPDATE: 1. Zakaria expands on his point about European immigration system in this (as usually) excellent article in Newsweek. (via India Uncut)

UPDATE 2 (on April 10th 2006): Much has happened since I wrote this post. More protests are scheduled today. I don’t think my stand has changed very much. As mentioned in the comments, Confused has a post on this topic. Sepia Mutiny weighs in on the debate – mainly from the second generation south asian angle though. Some interesting comments there.
And the always funny Gawker suggests his own remedy 🙂

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

March 31, 2006 at 1:38 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Great post. I have been inspired enough to write my own take on it. Cant promise when it is going to be up, hopefully pretty soon.


    April 1, 2006 at 12:03 am

  2. Believe it or not, it is already up!


    April 1, 2006 at 9:47 am

  3. As is everywhere, its all vote bank politics. And the politics of noise.


    April 10, 2006 at 3:45 pm

  4. […] Since, I am still feeling too lazy to write some actually meaningful posts (even though no one has ever accused me of writing ‘meaningful’ stuff), I thought I will borrow a page from this blogger, and repost some of my older stuff. I wrote this piece on Hindi film dialogues a little less than a year back when I had a different blog (on Blogger) and subsequently migrated it to the present blog. However, according to WP’s ‘Blog Stats’, this one actually gets the highest viewership among all the posts in my blog, easily beating the writings on Immigration or Quizzing (both of which got some exposure through DesiPundit). Much of this traffic comes by the way of searches for ‘Top Hindi movie dialogues’, ‘famous hindi film quotes’, ‘romantic dialogues ‘Amitabh dialogues’, and variations thereof. So why not bring it back to the top of the heap anyway. […]

  5. […] Note-This piece has been inspired by Bongpondit's excellent piece on illegal immigration. It has been written after drinking 2 beers and I propose to drink one more after finishing it. Needless to say, it is long, ponderous, boring and quite heartless. In other words it is quintessentially me. […]

  6. […] Note-This piece has been inspired by Bongpondit’s excellent piece on illegal immigration. It has been written after drinking 2 beers and I propose to drink one more after finishing it. Needless to say, it is long, ponderous, boring and quite heartless. In other words it is quintessentially me. […]

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    November 19, 2007 at 5:42 am

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