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Applying Conservative Principles To Immigration

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to Erick’s post last night regarding the principles for immigration reform I have recently developed. Before diving into the details of the plan, I want to take a moment to point out how the debate about immigration reflects positively on the conservative movement in general. Unlike the left, whose default tactic is to attack and destroy the personal character of those who disagree with their views, the conservative movement is capable of accommodating a vibrant internal debate on important issues solely on the merits. RedState has always been a welcoming forum for that sort of debate.

First, let me identify the problem we face. We have a legal immigration system that doesn’t work, we don’t have an effective system to enforce our immigration laws, and we have by some estimates as many as 11 million human beings living in the United States without the proper immigration documents in a state of de facto amnesty. It’s a problem that has both political and economic ramifications on our nation.

On the political front, a growing number of voters of Asian and Hispanic descent have been convinced by the left that conservative opposition to immigration reform equates to being anti-immigrant. This is unfair, and it is untrue. But they have pulled it off and, as a result, our ability to convince these fast-growing communities that the principles of limited government and free enterprise are better for them than big government and collectivism has been impaired.

The economic ramifications, however, are even more serious. For example, our technology sector creates roughly 120,000 computer engineering jobs a year, but our universities only graduate about 40,000 students a year in that field. The long term answer, of course, is to get more American students to graduate in this field. But the immediate problem is that, in the absence of an immigration system where these workers can be brought here, these jobs are sent overseas to them.

Another example is in agriculture, where a stable and affordable domestic supply of food is critical to our national security and our quality of life. Agriculture has always required a significant work force from abroad, but we do not have a system through which growers and dairies can bring a workforce legally into the U.S.

This broken system of immigration, combined with lax enforcement, has resulted in our illegal immigration problem.

In an ideal world, we could go back to 1986 and rewrite the immigration reform efforts implemented then to account for these issues and to ensure that real enforcement measures would be implemented. But in the real world, we cannot do that. We have to deal with what we have in the best way possible and make sure that this never ever happens again.

The principles I have proposed to deal with this issue are not perfect, but I believe they create a framework for dealing with this reality in a responsible and reasonable way. And I think conservatives have already won important concessions from Democrats that we can build on to shape the actual legislation.

First, we would modernize our legal immigration system. In essence, we create one that meets the needs this country has in this new century. For example, while I support our family-based system of immigration, we can no longer afford to have less than ten percent of our immigration based on skill and talent. We need a functional guest worker program so that, in times of low unemployment and rapid economic growth, our industries have the labor they need to continue growing. And we need an agricultural worker program that allows our growers to contract the seasonal and year round labor they need legally.

Second, we need real enforcement mechanisms. An employment verification system is the key to this. We have the technology to implement such a system, so we just need to do it. Over 40 percent of our illegal immigrants entered legally and overstayed their visas. That’s why we need to have a complete system of tracking the entry and exit of visitors, using the technologies available to us today. And we need to achieve control of our borders. This is not just an immigration issue; this is a national security and sovereignty issue. And it can be done. The southern border is actually divided into nine separate sectors. There has been progress made in some sectors and not enough on others. We need to establish the high probability of intercepting illegal crossings in each of these sectors in a timely and effective manner.

And third, we have to deal with those who are here now without documents. I am not happy about the fact that we face this problem. But we do. Most of these are people who will be here for the rest of their lives with or without documents, so it is in our best interest to deal with them and to make sure this never happens again.

This is how I have proposed we do so. First, those who have violated our immigration laws must come forward and undergo a background check. If they have committed a serious crime, they will be deported. If they have not, they will have two choices. They can avail themselves of the current law which requires them to return to their native country, wait ten years and then apply for a green card. Or if they decide to remain in the United States, they will do so under the equivalent of a non-immigrant work permit by paying a substantial fine and back taxes. If they choose the non-immigrant work visa, they will not qualify for any federal benefits, including ObamaCare.

Those who choose the non-immigrant work permit will not be allowed to apply for a green card for a substantial period of time. And they will not be allowed to apply until the enforcement mechanisms outlined above are in place. Thereafter, once these conditions are met, and if they have not violated any laws while holding the work permit, the only thing they will be allowed to do is apply for a green card using the same process everyone else uses. That is, they apply, they wait in line behind everyone who has applied before them and when their turn comes up, they have to qualify for one of the existing green card programs.

In his post, Erick raised several points. First, he expresses doubt that the border can ever be secured because no one will ever agree that it is secured. There are ways to measure the security at the border. There are real and identifiable standards that can be used. And there are ways to certify this, free of political interference. If the bill that is ultimately crafted achieves this, I will support it. If it does not, I won’t.

Second, he objects to the notion of “jobs that Americans won’t do”. He correctly points out that the more accurate description is “jobs that Americans won’t do at that price point”. The fact is that, as Americans, we have reached a certain standard of living that requires us to make a certain amount of money before we will do certain jobs. The problem is that, in a free market, the cost of production is always passed on to the consumer. That is one of the reasons why I object to tax increases – because the cost is always paid by workers and customers. The same is true for labor costs. There is a price point at which our farmers simply won’t do business because they will not be able to offer products at an affordable price.

Erick’s final objection is that the plan does nothing to address the real problems with immigration – in other words, the black market for low skilled labor, long delays in the system and so forth. This is not accurate. Our principles call for the creation of a guest worker program that, when effectively implemented in conjunction with a workplace verification system, would wipe out the black market for low skilled labor. And as the principles call for, any modernization effort would have to address the long delays in the system, which a modernized agricultural worker program and STEM visa reform would do.

Perhaps the most widely used criticism I have seen is that this nothing but an updated version of earlier efforts. There are significant differences. The previous efforts did not have effective border security, workplace enforcement and entry-exit enforcement triggers, whereas this plan must or I will not support it.

The previous plan created a special pathway to citizenship through a Z-Visa, whereas these principles do not. And if the bill does, I will not support it.

Finally, Erick expresses concerns that we should not pander in the name of a solution. On this point, Erick and I are in total agreement. I’m not pursuing reforms to our immigration system because of the last election or future elections. I’m doing what I can because I believe it’s important for our country, because conservative principles can make this legislation better, and immigration is one of the few issues where government has a legitimate and central role to play.

As I have clearly stated, I will not engage in a bidding war with the President to see who can come up with the fastest and cheapest path to citizenship. That is why having these principles in writing was so important. We now have a bipartisan collection of senators – including some prominent allies of the President – committed, in writing, to border security and other enforcement triggers, a functional guest worker program and the idea that those who violated our immigration laws and stay on a work permit will not be able to receive federal benefits. We even got President Obama to concede that undocumented immigrants who avail themselves of this program will not be eligible for federal benefits, including Obamacare, during their lengthy non-immigrant status. If the President decides to support a plan to the left of this, he will do so in conflict with leaders of his own party – not to mention the majority of Americans – and ultimately bear the responsibility for derailing a bi-partisan immigration plan.

I do not pretend that this is a perfect solution. I know that the idea of accommodating people who violated our immigration laws, in any way, makes many people uncomfortable. But I have concluded that it is not good for our country to continue to allow this problem to linger. We are better off solving this once and for all.

Now begins the process of turning these principles into a bill. The details will matter a lot. This is another place where conservatives and readers of RedState can help influence the final outcome. When I was elected, insisting on transparency and openness in Congress was a central topic of discussion. It’s something I will insist on throughout this process. I welcome input, criticism and suggestions. A bill this important cannot be written behind closed doors and then forced on the American people. Whatever our work group comes up with is a starting point, not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

And I understand there are those who will not support any effort. Some raise valid points and I respect their views. But in the end, to leave things the way they are now is de facto amnesty and a barrier to accomplishing important government reforms in other areas. It is no way to run a nation of immigrants.

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