How the Senate Bill Seeks to Deter Future Waves of Unauthorized Immigration

shutterstock_62621254The Senate Judiciary Committee continues to consider amendments to Title II of the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act’’ (S.744) today. For many, Title II is the bill’s core as it deals with the legalization of the undocumented population already living here and lays out the rules concerning future immigration, among other issues.

It is no accident that legalization and regulation of future flows of immigration are considered together. As we learned with the Immigration Control and Reform Act (IRCA) in 1986, it would be a major mistake to address one of the adverse consequences of our broken immigration system without also proposing realistic and effective rules to regulate immigration moving forward. In other words while we are bringing millions of people out of the shadows we must also create an enhanced and flexible system of rules for future immigration which will ensure that we do not find ourselves in the same position years from now.

One of the explicit goals of S.744 is to curtail future flows of unauthorized immigration by correcting some of the flaws of the current legal immigration system. To that end, it establishes an updated system of legal immigration that, in principle, seeks to match the country’s economic and labor needs while respecting principles of family unification. Evidence shows that changes in unauthorized migration have, to a great extent, followed fluctuations in the economy. In other words, undocumented flows tend to increase during periods of economic growth and decrease during periods of recession. The legal immigration system, on the contrary, has not been aligned with the economic cycle.

Based on this scenario, the bill contemplates mechanisms aimed at absorbing future flows through legal channels. For example, it creates a new nonimmigrant visa for lower-skilled workers called the W visa, which will create stronger channels for lower-skilled workers when the economy is growing. The W visa will be regulated by a new agency based on assessments of shortages in certain occupations. In addition, S.744 proposes changes in immigrant visas that will create stronger avenues for lower skilled workers. Specifically, under the new merit based-point system it allocates between 60,000 and 125,000 visas each year to lower skilled immigrants. The bill also raises the cap for employment-based immigrant visas allocated to lower skilled workers.

Aside from employment-based channels, the S.744 additionally removes some obstacles that currently obstruct family reunification. In this regard, it provides mechanisms to clear the backlog of visas that have been pending for 5 years after the petition was filed. It also reclassifies spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents (LPRs) as immediate relatives, which means that these family categories will no longer be subject to annual quotas. These proposed changes would serve as an additional incentive to avoid illegal immigration based on family separation issues.

As these programs are implemented, careful attention to how well the various demand-based calculators are working is essential. We must also carefully monitor the impact of the new system on particular groups. A preliminary analysis of the new merit-based point system, for example, reveals that some categories of people would be put at a disadvantage. Specifically, women, people who work in the informal economy (including those who do unpaid work), individuals with family ties to U.S. citizens with insufficient human capital credentials (i.e., formal education and employment history), middle age and older adults, and applicants from less-developed countries would be counted among those groups.

While there is still a lot of room for improvement, the solutions proposed in the bill are a significant leap forward and offer much stronger mechanisms and incentives for potential immigrants to use legal channels.

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