May 20, 2006 | Commentary on Immigration
Most discussion of the proposed
Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (generally referred to as the
Hagel-Martinez bill), centers on the fact that it would grant
amnesty to 10 million illegal immigrants. But this is a mere drop
in the bucket.
If enacted, Hagel-Martinez would represent the most dramatic change in immigration law in 80 years. If enacted in its original form, S. 2611 would have resulted in an estimated 103 million immigrants entering the U.S. or achieving legal status over the next 20 years. All of these would have had the right to become citizens. Early last week, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D.-N.M.) forced through an amendment to the bill (opposed by the bill's authors) to reduce one of the major categories of proposed immigrant inflow.
Even with the Bingaman amendment, the bill would allow an estimated 66 million people to immigrate legally to the United States in the next 20 years. Annual legal immigration to the U.S. would more than double if Hagel-Martinez becomes law, from one million per year to 2.5 million. Under current law, 19 million immigrants would enter the United States legally in the next 20 years; Hagel-Martinez would add 47 million to this total.
Today, legal immigrants are here on 1) temporary status, in which they can stay only for a designated period of time, 2) near-permanent convertible status, in which they are given the right to "adjust" or convert to legal permanent residence after a few years, or 3) legal permanent residence (LPR) status, in which they can remain in the United States for the rest of their lives and seek full citizenship after five years.
The bill proposed by Senators Chuck Hagel (R.-Neb.) and Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.) would give most immigrants now identified as "temporary" a "convertible" status with virtually unrestricted opportunity to become legal permanent residents and then citizens.
Moreover, under Hagel-Martinez and current immigration law, immigrants in convertible or LPR status have the right to bring spouses and minor children into the country. Spouses and dependent children will be granted permanent residence along with the primary immigrant and also may become citizens. In addition, after naturalizing, an immigrant can bring his parents into the United States as permanent residents with the opportunity for citizenship.
There are no limits on the number of spouses, dependent children and parents of naturalized citizens who can be brought into country under Hagel-Martinez. Siblings and adult children (along with their families) of naturalized citizens and the adult children (and their families) of legal permanent residents get preference in future admission but are subject to numeric caps.
Four key provisions of Hagel-Martinez would result in an explosive increase in legal immigration: First, illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for five years or more-60 % of all illegals-would be granted immediate amnesty. Illegals here two to five years (another 25%) would travel to one of 16 "ports of entry," where they would receive amnesty and work permits. After receiving amnesty, illegal immigrants would spend six years in a provisional status, then become legal permanent residents. Five years later, they could become U.S. citizens. Moreover, all who receive amnesty could bring their spouses and dependent children into the country, and none of these individuals would count against any cap or limit in immigration law.
Hagel-Martinez also creates a new "temporary guest-worker" program, but there is nothing temporary about it. Nearly all "guest workers" would have the option to become permanent residents and then citizens. Foreign workers would have to have a job offer from a U.S. employer to enter the country. But intermediate employment firms that specialize in recruiting foreign labor for U.S. employers likely would emerge to handle this for nearly everyone who wanted in.
Guest workers could remain in the United States for six years, and in the fourth of those six years, request and receive LPR status if they have learned English or enrolled in an English class. And again, there are no limits on the number of guest workers who could move to LPR status, stay in the country permanently and become U.S. citizens. And, again, their spouses and minor children also would be permitted to immigrate to the United States with them and gain LPR status with them. And again, those who become citizens then could bring in their parents as legal permanent residents.
The amended bill does limit the number of guest workers who can enter each year to 200,000 per year. Within 20 years, millions of guest workers would have entered the United States, and none would be required to leave.
Today, the permanent entry of non-immediate relatives, such as brothers, sisters and adult children, is capped at 480,000 per year minus the number of immediate relatives-parents, spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens-admitted the previous year. Hagel-Martinez eliminates the deduction for immediate relatives from the cap, which effectively increases the number of non-immediate relatives who could attain LPR status by 254,000 per year or about 5 million over 20 years.
The United States now issues about 140,000 employment-based visas per year. Under Hagel-Martinez, it would issue 450,000 per year till 2016, then 290,000 per year after that. Moreover, spouses and children of workers with employment-based visas do not count against the cap. Given that 1.2 dependent relatives enter the United States for each worker under employment-based immigration programs, this means that nearly 1 million people per year would receive LPR status until 2016 and 638,000 per year after that.
How is the figure of 66 million reached?
Today, 950,000 people per year receive permanent residence visas under current law. Over 20 years, that adds up to 19 million. The provision granting amnesty to illegal immigrants living in the United States would add another 10 million.
Today, when secondary family members, such as brothers and sisters, enter, they are counted against the 480,000 people per year allowed in because they are relatives of those already here under employment or guest-worker programs. Ceasing to count them against the 480,000, as Hagel-Martinez would do, adds 254,000 per year. That's 5 million over 20 years.
Growing the employment-based green card program from 140,000 workers per year to 450,000-plus the estimated 540,000 relatives they are allowed to bring with them-would account for another 13.5 million people over 20 years.
The new guest-worker program would allow in 200,000 people each year. That would yield another 4 million people over 20 years. Spouses and dependent children of illegal immigrants already here who would receive amnesty under Hagel-Martinez and parents of naturalized citizens joining their families in the United States make up the rest.
A recent piece on HumanEventsOnline.com by Alan Reynolds of the Cato Institute stated that I performed a cheap trick by predicting that immigration under S. 2611 would reach 200 million over 20 years. As Mr. Reynolds should be well aware, I never predicted 200 million immigrants under S. 2611 and provided that number only to illustrate that my own estimates fell far below the law's maximum legal flow. I did estimate that the inflow under S. 2611's original uncapped "guest-worker" program could reach two million per year by 2027. I regard that estimate as perfectly reasonable given the original provisions in the legislation. Immigration law for the last 40 years has been a parable of unforeseen consequences-creating new, essentially unlimited, categories of immigration is an invitation for remarkable surprises that are unlikely to be undone once underway. For example, the immigration act of 1965 was not advertised as a decisive increase in immigration at the time of its passage, but it resulted in a near tripling of immigration within 30 years.
The Hagel-Martinez bill would yield similar outcomes. Today, about one million immigrants enter the United States each year legally. Under Hagel-Martinez, that number would more than double. Likewise, today, 12% of our population is foreign-born. If Hagel-Martinez passes, nearly a quarter (22%) of the population would be foreign-born within 20 years. That level of immigration is unprecedented in American history, far above the previous peak of 15% foreign born in the early 1900s. (Moreover, this analysis of Hagel-Martinez concerns only future legal immigration. It is likely the heavy illegal migration would continue under the bill as well.)
The Hagel-Martinez bill would transform the United States socially, economically and politically in ways we can't now imagine. What we can know is that, if this passes, within two decades, the character of the nation would be fundamentally different from what exists today.
Robert Rector is a senior research fellow domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Distributed nationally in the Human Events