Thursday, May 24, 2007

Bargaining With Oneself?

This week, the Senate began debate over a massive immigration reform bill cobbled together by a bipartisan group of senators and the Bush administration, a compromise proposal that Arlen Specter has extravagantly dubbed the "grand bargain." As rumored several weeks ago, the bill includes a set of initiatives (apparently included at the behest of the Bush administration) that would radically accelerate the Clinton-era trend of eroding the place of family unity as a foundational principle underlying U.S. immigration policy. The system contemplated by the grand bargainers would eliminate most of the existing family-based immigration preference categories (and all of the existing employment-based preference categories) in favor of a new "points"-based scheme that prioritizes highly-skilled, highly-educated, and English-speaking professionals; under the points scheme, family ties would carry negligible weight. Immigration by spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents would remain unchanged, but the grand bargain would eliminate family-based immigration for adult children of U.S. citizens and permanent residents and siblings of U.S. citizens. The proposal would also cap immigration by parents of adult U.S. citizens, who currently can immigrate without numerical restriction.

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The proposal seems to come straight from the playbook of immigration restrictionists, who sometimes purport to welcome nuclear family-based immigration, but dismiss extended family-based immigration as privileging "kinship ties" over "actually making the United States better off." [link] Curtailing "extended" family-based immigration -- which in this context means parents, adult children, and adult siblings, not more "distant" relatives -- certainly would visit a real hardship upon many immigrants from societies in which the extended family is a basic social unit and caring for aging parents and other adult family members a basic social value. (Indeed, at least one international news report this week characterized the grand bargain as "challeng[ing] Asian family values.") But one need not view this issue exclusively in cultural terms to be concerned by the grand bargain's rather sudden move away from family unity, for opponents of extended family-based immigration also seem to underestimate its social and economic benefits to the United States at large. Studies indicate that family-based immigrants, perhaps aided by greater social capital, have the same earning potential over time as employment-based immigrants, play a leading role in the entrepreneurial sector, and provide economic, psychological, emotional, and cultural support that facilitates the integration of immigrants into U.S. society. Immigrant grandparents and other extended family members often also play a crucial role in assisting with child care, facilitating the workforce participation of many parents.

It is a bit odd to see a proposal to curtail family reunification -- which was not even on the table at all in the immigration debate last year -- as part of the opening bid in the debate before a Democratic Senate. It is one thing to see President Bush's statement that "American citizens [should] understand that family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River" evaporate, since the Bush administration has always devoted more energy to asserting broad principles in the area of immigration reform than to tangibly implementing those principles in proposed legislation. (The revised rhetoric coming from the White House this week maintains, less majestically, that the grand bargain's elimination of most family-based immigration categories "create[s] a new balance between family connections and our national interests and economic needs." [link]) But it is quite another to see Senator Kennedy signing on to this proposal, which appears in a bill that on balance seems more restrictionist, in some ways, than the bill which passed the Republican-led Senate by a wide margin last year. Not only did Kennedy strongly assert his commitment to family reunification less than two months ago, he also played a crucial role in placing family reunification at the heart of U.S. immigration policy in the first place, when the Immigration Act of 1965 was enacted. One has to wonder what the strategy is here. Some senators have said they will seek to amend the family unity provisions on the Senate floor, but it remains to be seen how those floor votes will play out.

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The New York Times efficiently summarizes and critiques the 347-page bill's main components (including its legalization and temporary guest worker provisions, and the "triggers" and "touchbacks" that might make it difficult for those provisions to take effect at all) in this short editorial. The American Immigration Lawyers Association adds its concerns about the grand bargain here, the Rights Working Group discusses due process concerns in the bill here, and SAALT executive director Deepa Iyer discusses implications for the South Asian American community here. And last but not least, Jon Stewart and Aasif Mandvi discuss the points scheme in the clip above.