People in the United States are accustomed to looking at immigration from a uniquely American point of view—as a nation of immigrants that struggles to balance being open to those seeking opportunities and refuge with controlling entry and protecting U.S. citizens.
Migration Information Source Editor Kirin Kalia spoke with Thor Arne Aass—Director General, Department of Migration, Ministry of Labor and Social Inclusion, Norway, and a Visiting Fellow at MPI—about his views on the U.S. immigration reform process.
What are your impressions of the congressional and public debates on immigration reform?
From my point of view as a European, the debate in the United States seems unfocused, unstructured, and very emotional. Everyone seems to agree that the present system is broken. Something has to be done. In order to even begin to reform the current system, two central questions must be answered: What should be done with the unauthorized immigrants living in the United States today, and what reforms are needed to create a comprehensive immigration system for the future?
Even though there is a clear link between these two questions, I think they should be discussed separately. If mixed, the discussion will be needlessly complex and will remain unfocused and unstructured.
There are only two answers to the first question: expulsion or legalization. If the federal government is not able or willing to expel and return the unauthorized immigrants, the only viable long-term solution will be legalization. To answer the second question, many disparate responses must be merged into one comprehensive reform.
For most Americans, the number of unauthorized immigrants is shocking. How do you see the problem?
The first question for me, and perhaps the most important when trying to understand the American way of thinking from the “outside” is, “What's actually ‘wrong' with 12 million unauthorized immigrants: their sheer number or their unauthorized status?” I think the problem is not the 12 million but the fact that they are living illegally in the United States.
The number is high, even frightening to many, especially to a Norwegian. If, proportionately, the same number of people immigrated to Norway, there would be 200,000 unauthorized immigrants in a country whose total population is a relatively paltry 4.6 million. Today, in fact, we estimate that there are between 5,000 and 20,000 unauthorized immigrants in Norway. However, we do not know how many unauthorized immigrants there are in Norway, where they come from, or how many are working.
In the United States, however, it seems that most people accept the number as fact. There is knowledge about the employment rate of the unauthorized population, where they come from, how many of their children are American citizens, et cetera. I do not know of any other country that can claim to know so much about their unauthorized population.
Of the 12 million, 7.2 million are working, their children go to school, and most of them abide by the law in their day-to-day lives. In my opinion, most people who engage in the immigration debate seem to accept that unauthorized immigrants make U.S. goods and services competitive. If they were all sent back to their countries of origin, what would happen next? Would unemployed Americans fill the gaps? Would average wages rise? Would working conditions improve?
So would you say the United States needs these unauthorized immigrants?
It seems to me the unauthorized are needed. They are a vital part of the U.S. economy. Is the problem then that they have entered the United States illegally? For me, the answer is obviously yes.
For any country, a huge illegal population will mean a lot of problems, including uneven competition between firms who use illegal immigrants and those who do not; failure of the unauthorized population to regularly pay taxes like the rest of the workforce; national insecurity due to the presence of unknown and/or unidentified individuals within the nation's sovereign territory; and ambiguous status for unauthorized immigrants, without legal rights such as the right to leave and reenter the country.
Twelve million unauthorized immigrants is a very high figure. On the other hand, the current U.S. number of about 1 million legal immigrants a year is not too high of a figure. The Canadian government has stated that Canada is and will be an immigration country. Their ambition has been that annual immigration inflows should equal 1 percent of Canada's population. With a total population of 32 million, that means 320,000 new immigrants arriving in Canada every year.
One percent of the U.S. population would equal 3 million new immigrants every year. Even a country like Norway has a higher legal immigration rate in relation to total population than the United States.
If you add the number of unauthorized immigrants to the number of legal immigrants in the United States, the total count, approximately 1.5 million per year, would still be a lower figure than that of Canada.
Therefore, in my analysis, the problem should not be the number of immigrants, but the high proportion of immigrants who come to the United States illegally every year, and who stay as unauthorized immigrants. Many of them have been living illegally in the United States for more than ten years.
Will regularizing the unauthorized and instituting a temporary worker program solve the problem?
Most European countries, as well as the United States, hope to formulate migration reforms that enable the government to manage migration flows. Demography tells us that most Western industrialized countries need immigrants to fill present and future gaps in the labor market.
But managed migration requires a system through which the government can control who and how many individuals can enter its country. For the sake of our national security, we must know who they are. For the sake of our economy, we must know they have the skills we need and that they will pay taxes like everybody else. If our countries can manage migration inflows properly, immigration will be a benefit and not burden society.
Popular support for labor migration must be based on the need for more manpower and the new competencies and skills that immigrants bring with them, not employers' wishes to keep wages and working conditions at levels only unskilled immigrants will accept. If the raison d'être for labor migration is a lack of manpower and special skills, and not social dumping, that motivating factor certainly affects the priorities, rules, and regulations that need to be developed.
A combination of temporary and permanent visas/work permits can fill the gaps in the labor market. The effect of more visas on illegal immigration depends on the answers to two more questions: 1) Will employers stop hiring unauthorized immigrants if there are sufficient legal immigrants available to fill the gaps? and 2) Will more legal work permits/visas stop people without a work permit/visa from coming illegally?
If the answers to both questions are yes, then regularization and a legal migration scheme can solve the problem. If the answers to both questions are no, bigger problems will arise and the system will not be a managed migration system. That said, the challenge will be to put together a comprehensive reform package that ensures an affirmative response to both questions.
What would you include in comprehensive immigration reform?
Every nation-state has the right to base its immigration policy on truly selfish national interests. While there is certainly nothing wrong with such an approach, policymakers must agree on what their nation's best interests in fact are. A comprehensive reform must deal with border control, enforcement of the legality of the workforce, and the national economy's need for human resources within the context of an aging population.
A managed migration system has to be comprehensive and diversified. At the same time it is important to make the system as simple, flexible, and transparent as possible. My proposals would be as follows:
Control all entry points to the country. A managed migration system means the federal government must control who enters the country. But it is important to keep in mind that many unauthorized immigrants initially crossed the border legally after obtaining visas at U.S. consulates abroad. It is difficult to determine how many individuals came legally, overstayed their visa, and became unauthorized immigrants. Sealing off a nation's borders, much as the German Democratic Republic did during the Cold War, does not necessarily preclude the possible presence of unauthorized immigrants.
Make sure employers are not tempted to hire unauthorized immigrants. A much tougher policy is needed in this regard. Unauthorized immigrants come to the United States looking for work. If employers did not hire unauthorized immigrants, there would not be many unauthorized immigrants.
Issue a smart card with biometrics that makes it easier to verify identity and legal status/work permit. All applications with biometric identification should be stored in a database, such as the European Visa Information System (VIS).
Forget the cap on legal immigration. If American firms are not able to find American citizens or legal immigrants to do a job, there should be no cap on legal labor migration. If there is a cap of 400,000 visas for labor immigrants, but the labor market needs 800,000 people to fill the vacant jobs, 400,000 legal immigrants and 400,000 unauthorized immigrants will result. With a transparent system in which the wages of new immigrants are not lower than anyone else's, the labor market's needs will self-regulate the flow.
Make sure the administrative capacity and the procedures needed to examine all applications for visas/work permits in a secure and efficient way are in place. The system should be diversified, with fast-track procedures for bona fide applications. Let the employers do the paperwork, but make sure that when all the necessary papers are in order, the application is handled quickly.
Require proof of a job offer for applicants seeking a visa/work permit. The permit would grant legal status for one year. The one-year permit could be renewed twice. If the immigrant were to lose his job, he would have a reasonable amount of time to find a new job. If the immigrant did not find new employment, the visa/work permit would be withdrawn, and he would have to leave the country.
Suspend family reunification for temporary workers during the first three years. To underscore the temporary nature of this provisional permission to stay an initial three years, the worker should not be allowed to bring over a spouse and/or children.
Allow a temporary worker who has successfully renewed a one-year permit twice to apply for a three-year permit. If the worker were to lose his job while in possession of a three-year work permit, he would have six months to find a new job. If he failed to do so, he would have to return to his country of origin. Spouses and children under 18 would have the right to join the worker. There should be no cap on the number of immediate family members (spouse and children under 18) who could come as part of the family reunification program.
Permit immigrants to apply for permanent legal status after six years. After living in the country for this long (the first three years on the one-year permit and the remaining three years on the three-year permit), the worker has proven a commitment to the country and so should be able to stay.
Detain and then expel all unauthorized immigrants. From the enforcement budget numbers I have seen, it is clear the United States should increase its interior enforcement budget and manpower to achieve this goal. Those who overstay or violate the terms of their visas should be banned from entering the country for at least five years, though the amount of time would vary depending on how long the individual was in the country illegally.
Deny citizenship to children born in the United States to parents who are not American citizens. Ireland had a popular referendum on the issue in 2004, and changed its law. Although it is extremely difficult to amend the U.S. constitution, whose 14th Amendment says that all children born in the United States are citizens, the United States should follow the same path as Ireland. To most Europeans, it is obvious that a baby should have the same nationality as its parents, no matter where the child is born. The children of Americans living illegally in most other countries are American citizens only, despite the fact that the child was born in a different country.
Limit family reunification for all permanent immigrants to spouses, children under 18, and parents without relatives or partners in their country of origin. If immigrants have siblings who would like to immigrate to the United States, they should apply for a visa under the labor category.
How would you rate the chances of such proposals becoming law in the United States?
My proposals are based on a European perspective and European experiences. I guess they will never be copied fully in the United States. It will be interesting to see if Capitol Hill and the White House can agree on comprehensive immigration reform, and, should they come to some sort of agreement, to assess how far my ideas diverge or converge from their proposals. Europeans will surely follow the debate and evaluate the conclusions with great interest.