By David L. Wilson
NEW YORK, April 24--The U.S. political class is hoping to push a major immigration package through Congress this year, to judge by presentations at a panel of D.C. insiders at New York’s New School yesterday evening. All that’s left to do, it seems, is fine-tune the program and figure out how to sell it to the legislators.
The new plan isn’t going to be the straightforward amnesty sought by some 12 million undocumented immigrants and their friends and relatives, according to panelist Tamar Jacoby, a former senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and now the head of ImmigrationWorks US, a lobbying group.
Legalization of the undocumented would be one of the “three pillars” of immigration reform, in Jacoby’s view, but another pillar would be “better enforcement,” including improved border patrolling and some sort of national ID card. The “most important” of the pillars, though, would be a “flexible pipeline” to bring new immigrant workers into the country. This will “grow our economy” by “link[ing] quotas to labor needs,” Jacoby said.
“They’re going to call that pipeline a guest worker program,” cautioned moderator and New School president Bob Kerrey, referring to the bracero and H2 visa programs that have exploited low-wage immigrant workers in the past. An immigration bill with a guest worker program would have trouble winning the 60 votes the Senate needs to block a filibuster, said Kerrey, a former senator from Nebraska, and so would a package without the program.
Jacoby admitted that “labor will resist” her employment plan. But she expected a compromise between labor and business, which insists on some mechanism for bringing in immigrant workers.
The clearest sign of the panelists’ optimism about winning reform in the near future came from Michael Aytes, acting deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services (USCIS). Aytes didn’t present arguments for or against a legalization measure, which his agency would have to implement—he simply focused on the ways Congress could “structure” the measure to reduce the “challenges” to immigration authorities in a reform that will “probably be more comprehensive than in 1986,” the year of the last amnesty.
Jacoby said it was refreshing to hear a government official say “’will,’ not ‘if’” about immigration reform.
The all-white panel also included the respected demographer Jeffrey Passel from the Pew Hispanic Center and Marshall Fitz, the head lobbyist for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Billed as “Intelligent Immigration Reform: A Real-World Legislative Approach,” the panel had no representative from the labor movement and, strikingly, no one identified as an immigrant.
The only serious opposition to Jacoby’s plan would have come from the right. The New School had invited Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which pushes for extreme restrictions on immigration. But Krikorian cancelled at the last minute, citing illness. Members of local immigrant rights groups speculated that the real reason might have been the protest they were planning against his inclusion on the panel. The New School campus has experienced two building occupations since December by students opposing President Kerrey’s policies.
Several of the nearly 500 people in the audience asked if immigration could be reduced by improving conditions in nearby countries like Mexico, a topic no panelist had raised.
Jacoby, a vigorous promoter of the corporate globalization policies that have transformed Latin America over the last two decades, seemed taken aback by the question. If conditions improved in Mexico, we’d have to recruit Mexican workers, she said. The United States simply doesn’t have enough high school dropouts to fill all the job slots for unskilled manual labor. “We need those workers,” Jacoby explained.