6 Questions to Pose to Immigration Reformers

With Congress still trying to hammer out an immigration reform bill, here are six questions worth thinking about:

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1. Will Hispanics really be drawn to the Republican Party after a deal? It's possible that the numbers of Hispanics who vote and identify with Republicans could tick up. But there's a lot of evidence to suggest that they won't, including plenty of polling data showing that Hispanic views are more in line with Democratic views of government and social spending. Even Ann Coulter had a clock-is-right-twice-a-day moment when she noted that the 1986 immigration reform/amnesty plan didn't make the GOP more attractive to Hispanics, so why might this? There are lots of good arguments for immigration reform — humanitarian, social, economic — but the idea that it'll help the GOP seems dubious.

2. Are H1-B visas that great? If there's any bipartisan consensus on immigration it's that the H1-B visa system for students is a good thing that will allow more talented folks to stay here. If a Harvard physics student wants to stay here rather than return to India, what's wrong with that? But H1-B visas are more likely to be about mid-level information-technology workers than retaining the next Bill Gates. Here's the Indian government boasting of its cheap IT workers.

It may be that there are solid arguments for expanding the law — as Sen. Amy Klobuchar and others are trying to do — but are the benefits being overhyped? The idea that it's really going to change the talent equation should be approached with skepticism.

3. Can we really pick the winners among would-be-immigrants? If you were betting at the turn of the century that Jews would earn more than WASPs — and not just German-assimilated Jews but also the Shtetl Jews from Eastern Europe — it would have been a dubious wager, same for say the Japanese over the Irish. Picking ethnic groups is something we pretty much got rid of in 1965 with the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which ended the ethnic quotas established in 1920. It led to the wave of Asian immigration and to so many other immigrants from beyond Europe. Thank goodness.

H1-B visas aren't onerous like the old quotas in that they're based on race-neutral credentials. But the push to expand H1-B visas is still an attempt to guess who will prevail in America and who won't. Why assume the Jordanian computer scientist is going to be a greater boon to the U.S. economy than the Irish mechanic who may not be in graduate school but is a natural tinkerer and entrepreneur? Or vice-versa. We really don't know, but if we go down a path of trying to pick those with better education credentials, then it's like picking a college class solely on SATs: an uncertain proposition.

4. Does "a path to citizenship" create an incentive for more illegal immigration? No one with a heart can be happy about 11 million men, women, and children illegally in the country having to live in the shadow of deportation. And the public is now solidly for a path to citizenship. The questions at hand aren't only about illegal immigrants, or even Americans. They're about what a potential illegal immigrant from Guatemala or Greece decides is in his or her interest with the path to citizenship. Even with the path to citizenship that's now being discussed — learning English, paying a fine, waiting eight years — it's still better than coming here and having to hide. And if there is an expiration date for getting on the path to citizenship, is there much doubt it will be extended? All of which leads to the next questions.

5. Can the border be secured? Immigration across the Mexican border is at a historic low and border security has been vastly increased. But the correlation between the two isn't so clear. The crappy U.S. economy and the housing downturn, with its construction jobs, seem to account for the net migratory flow to Mexico. Eventually it will pick up. So one of the issues under discussion is how to determine when the border is secure. Most of the discussion has centered on creating a commission to render that judgment. But as Greg Sargentpointed out, that's largely a talking point. Could the group really slam the brakes on the road to citizenship?

6. How much flip-flopping is too much? The New York Times ran a strong piece on the two Arizona senators — John McCain and Jeff Flake — and their flopping around on immigration. I am a great believer in changing one's mind. See Abraham Lincoln. But the contortions that folks are going through seem so driven by the 2012 election results that it could undermine the whole reform effort. It's one thing to say we need to deal with immigration. It's another to announce how worried you are about ethnic votes. But if Republicans can bring along the public, then they're on the right track. So far, it doesn't seem to be working. See McCain's tempestuous town meetings back home. In one of the high points of his career, McCain helped build the case both nationally and within the Senate for reconciliation with Vietnam. He had special credentials for that mission. It feels more wobbly this time.