OMNIA Q&A: Immigration Impasse

Michael Jones-Correa, President's Distinguished Professor of Political Science, discusses the congressional immigration debate.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Democrats and Republicans continue to struggle over an immigration compromise, with issues like DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and border wall funding hanging in the balance. We spoke with Michael Jones-Correa, President's Distinguished Professor of Political Science, about the possible outcomes.

Blake Cole: What are the key differences between the Democratic and Republican positions on immigrations?

Michael Jones-Correa: There's an ongoing discussion about how to proceed with legalization for the DREAMers, the people who are recipients of DACA. The Democratic party and some of the Republican moderates would like to pass what they call a clean DACA bill. That bill would provide a pathway to citizenship over a period of time to current and perhaps an expanded pool of DREAMers. This would probably be linked to increased border funding, which would address some of the Trump administration’s desire for building a wall.

The second position reflects a bill called the RAISE Act that's been submitted to the Senate by Republican Senators Cotton and Perdue, from Arkansas and Georgia, respectively. This would link some path to legalization for DACA recipients to a reduction in visas allocated to family reunification and a shift in emphasis to skilled immigration.

BC: In his State of the Union address, President Trump said, "A single immigrant can bring in unlimited numbers of distant relatives." Is this accurate?

MJC: What Trump said at the State of the Union was absolutely, flatly false. It is not the case that an immigrant who comes to the U.S. can bring in an unlimited number of people. Or even an unlimited number of family members. It's just not true. The way that the immigration system of the U.S. has functioned since 1965 is to allow people who become citizens to bring in their spouses and their children under 21. And there is no cap. Which is to say that if they are married, or if they have children under 21, citizens can sponsor those family members without any restrictions. The argument is about other family categories, like siblings and children over the age of 21, and whether those count as immediate family members, nuclear family members, or as extended family members.

There's a cap on how many siblings and adult children can be brought in, and the caps are really quite low, as low as 23,000 a year. In a system where we have 1,000,000 immigrants coming in a year, it's really tiny. So you have very long waiting lists for people who want to bring in their brother or sister as a sponsored immigrant. There are about 6,000,000 people on those waiting lists. So it's not nearly the case that any individual can bring in an unlimited number of family members. And it's not the case that, for instance, you could bring in a second cousin, or your aunt on your mother's side, or something like that. That's not the way the system works.

BC: How would the RAISE Act alter immigration?

MJC: The U.S., over the last 70 years, has had a strong preference for family reunification in its immigration system. So, this proposal would limit that quite drastically. It would also get rid of the Diversity Visa Program, or “lottery visa” program, which affects about 50,000 people a year. This was designed to allow people from countries not normally associated with immigration to the U.S. an opportunity to come. Proponents of the Cotton-Perdue bill also would like to see substantially increased border enforcement and nationwide application of E-Verify, which is a computerized database that links every individual to their legal status and social security number. Every employer would be required to match employees to this database.

BC: How did the government shutdown in January affect future negations?

MJC: Schumer made an offer to link a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients to funding for a border wall. He withdrew it after the last government shutdown. It’s unclear exactly what transpired, but my speculation is that he didn't want his offer to be the starting point for negotiations going forward. It’s possible that if that had been the starting point, then Republicans would come back and say, you've already compromised on this, let’s see what else we can get.  That’s why we’re back to square one.

BC: Are we headed for another impasse?

MJC: There is a compromise that's being hammered out by a group of senators that would have at its core some kind of trade-off between a pathway to citizenship for the DREAMers and expanded border security, with other possible compromises as well. That would move closer to the conservative Republican position. The House Republicans have already said that they will not accept any compromise. They want the full slate of positions outlined by the president, that reflect the Cotton and Perdue bill. So if there is some compromise that emerges from the Senate, it will run into opposition in the House, from conservative Republicans.

I think what the people working in the Senate are hoping is that, if they come through with a compromise that passes the Senate, it will put pressure on the House to bring that bill up for a vote in the House. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has indicated that he won't bring any measure to the floor for a vote that doesn't have the support of a majority of the majority. I think the hope is that there'll be enough pressure that he will not follow that rule, and just allow an open vote on the House floor. And if that happens, then there might be enough Democrats and enough Republicans to pass a bill. And if a bill passes both chambers, then it would go to the president. And again, I think the hope then would be there would be enough pressure that he would sign something.

BC: What if neither side budges?

MJC: What will happen then is that by March 5th or so, current DACA recipients, the DREAMers who have had some temporary reprieve from deportation, who've had some form of work authorization, will begin to lose those protections. And if that happens, then it becomes a much more visible political issue. And that will provide some pressure, too. And it's not entirely clear to me who loses in that situation. There are members of both parties who would like this issue to be resolved. They know what public opinion is, and they want this issue to go away. They just haven't figured out a way to make that happen.

There are a number of vulnerable Democratic senators running in very conservative states, for whom immigration is not a winning issue. But, as the DACA provisions begin to run out, then I think the political vulnerability is actually more on the side of the Republicans. Because you'll begin to see young immigrants who have spent their whole lives here being arrested or losing their jobs. And that is not going to look good.

BC: What are the pros and cons of a merit-based immigration policy?

MJC: The previously mentioned Cotton-Perdue bill would shift migration towards a point system, or merit-based immigration. And they point to other countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, which use a kind of point system. It assigns points to potential immigrants based on their education, or their job status, sometimes their age. And so you change the composition of the migration flow. And again, this would be a shift for the U.S., away from family toward this more kind of skills or jobs-based kind of migration. There is a good deal of consensus, probably across both Democrats and Republicans, that we should value people who bring skills. And, in practice, immigrants who come to the U.S. already under both family reunification and the Diversity Visa, have actually considerably higher education and skill levels than some native-born Americans do. So, we already are getting a kind of more highly skilled immigration pool, even under the current system.

So, the question is, how much do we weight these kind of economic considerations, versus the family considerations. Even in countries that have points-based systems, like Canada, only about half their immigrants are actually coming in under a point system. The others are, in fact, family members. Because you can't simply just bring people in and say, you're on your own. Part of the argument for a family-based system is that it makes the assimilation process work better. If you have a social network, people who care about you and you care about, that helps the process of adaptation to a new country go more smoothly. And I think in practice, every country recognizes this.

At its core this idea means that you want to capture the human capital that people have, and reap its benefits. But I think the idea behind most of the history of American immigration has been that human capital isn't fixed. That someone can come to the U.S. and they will educate themselves, or they will start a business, and they will do something more with themselves than they could have otherwise. It's an optimistic vision about human potential. And the merit-based system has a more restrictive vision of what human potential is like. And I think there is a fundamentally different philosophy behind those two approaches.

BC: DREAMers are often held up as “model minorities.” Is this problematic in the long run?

MJC: Advocates for the DREAMers want to make them appear as sympathetic as possible. Part of that is to say, now these are people, not only who have been here since they were children, but who have done things, admirable things, with their lives. That they have contributed to society. But the claim really should be based on their length of stay, even if they're doing humble things.

What matters is that they are, for all intents and purposes, one of us. They've been here, and they've grown up here. They've settled and put down roots. In many cases, raised families, bought homes. And it's the length of their ties, the depth of their connections, that should make them eligible for a pathway to citizenship.