"Every interest group, left, right and center, for one specific reason or another opposes the [immigration] bill. The question is, in a complicated world can Congress rise above those specific interests?"
That’s a quote from the new chair of the Senate’s immigration subcommittee, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who held his first immigration reform hearing yesterday. But my how things remain the same. Schumer actually spoke those words in 1986 as a Brooklyn (NY) congressman. That year he played a key role in brokering a compromise on agricultural workers—allowing undocumented farm workers to become legal immigrants if they had worked at least 90 days from 1985 to 1986—that paved the way for passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).
But he has learned a key lesson from IRCA—the last major overhaul of the U.S. immigration system. He recently told Newsday: “No one believed it was tough enough on illegal immigration, and it didn't give enough flexibility on future legal immigration."
So, while many people may be more familiar with the role of Sen. Ted Kennedy as the Democratic Party’s go-to immigration reform advocate, Schumer is no stranger to the scene. And he’s serious about starting the legislative search for a compromise. Yesterday’s hearing—appropriately titled "Comprehensive Immigration Reform in 2009, Can We Do It and How?"—was the first in what is likely to be a series of fact-finding discussions to see if immigration reform is possible in the midst of a severe economic recession.
One overarching question is: why take up immigration reform now? After all, Congress and the administration already have their hands full with the economy, two wars, swine flu, and, now, filling a soon-to-be-vacant Supreme Court seat. Two of yesterday’s all-star witnesses, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and former Immigration and Naturalization Service head Doris Meissner, agreed that now may be the right time to take up reform given the slowdown in unauthorized immigration—a consequence of a lack of available jobs in the United States.
Greenspan went on to say that “there is little doubt that unauthorized, that is, illegal immigration has made a significant contribution to the growth of our economy.”
But the stars do seem to be aligning for some sort of reform in the current Congress. Just two weeks ago, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win announced a joint framework for immigration reform, vowing to maintain pressure on Congress and the President to pass a reform. Providing quantitative support for reform, a new report from the Immigration Policy Center estimates that the 2007 immigration reform bill would have yielded $48 billion in new revenue through 2017 as a result of taxes and administrative fees. The 2006 legislation would have boosted U.S. revenue by $66 billion.
On top of that, Hispanics, the largest immigrant group, make significant contributions to the U.S. economy. According to a white paper released last year by the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, the nation’s nearly 2.2 million Hispanic-owned businesses were expected to generate an estimated $388.7 billion in revenues in last year.
But reform will be contentious, and groups on both sides of the debate readying their foot soldiers.
A successful agreement would have to find a delicate way to balance a more secure border with a path toward legalization for undocumented immigrants and appropriate sanctions for employers that knowingly hire unauthorized immigrants. As in previous years, temporary workers will be a dividing issue. And it may seem radical but the solution very well may rest on devising a flexible system where the number of visas granted rises and falls with economic needs.
With yesterday’s hearing, the immigration subcommittee has gotten the ball rolling. But sights must be set on finding a long-term solution. Otherwise, Schumer may be repeating himself twenty years from now.