Every freedom-loving American should download a copy of the immigration bill that died in the Senate last week and use it to light Fourth of July fireworks. The 700-plus page bill—more than 70 times longer than the U.S. constitution—was not only an attack on foreign immigrants—but also on the fundamental liberties of U.S. citizens.
Everyone is blaming Rush Limbaugh and his radio talk show cohorts for the collapse of the bill. Actually, they deserve to be thanked for abandoning the monster child they helped conceive.
This immigration bill was harsher beyond anything anyone had imagined, thanks to their relentless anti-immigration rants since the Senate first took a crack at comprehensive immigration reform last year. The whole point of that reform effort was to find a permanent solution to the problem of illegal immigration by combining enhanced border security with a path to citizenship for illegal aliens already here—the so-called amnesty provisions that made Limbaugh apoplectic—and by creating a guest worker program for future unskilled workers so that they could work in the country legally.
But the new bill turned that whole project on its head: It watered down both the "amnesty" measures and the guest worker program to the point of un-usability. At the same time, it invented a hugely intrusive scheme to prevent employers from hiring illegal immigrants. But, most radically, it tried to put in place the equivalent of an Industrial Policy for the immigrant labor market—so that the needs of American businesses and families would no longer determine who is admitted into the country. Rather, the whole process would be driven by a rigid and bureaucratic point-system.
In order for illegals to gain permanent residency or green cards, the bill would have required them first to cough up thousands of dollars in fines and fees to obtain a work permit; then wait for about a decade; then pay some more fines and fees; and then finally go and "touch back" their home country. Not too many illegals would have had the substantial money and time needed to avail of this "deal."
Yet if they didn't, the bill would have done everything possible to make their lives so miserable that they would leave on their own. One amendment that was considered would have overruled local laws that prohibit police officers from asking crime victims their immigration status. This was effectively an invitation to immigrants to forego basic police protections or risk deportation.
But the bill wouldn't have just enlisted government authorities to shoo-away illegals. It would have conscripted private employers as well by creating something called the Electronic Employee Verification program. Under this program, every employer would have been required to check the eligibility status of all their employees—immigrants and citizens alike—by running their identity information such as social security or visa numbers through an electronic federal database. Employers who refused to participate would face hefty fines and be barred from federal contracts.
Nor would these intrusions on American liberties have stopped at the workplace. Social Security numbers and similar identification information are exceedingly prone to errors and fraud. To get around this problem, our elected officials were also talking about creating tamper-proof social security cards with biometric information. Swiping these cards once through a scanning machine would have potentially put at a bureaucrat's disposal an individual's: tax records at the IRS; education loan records in the Department of Education; and health records at the Department of Health and Human Services. In the name of catching illegals and terrorists, in other words, every American would have been subjected to the lengthening reach of Big Brother.
But the most reactionary aspects of the bill concerned not American employers hiring illegal immigrants to work for them—but American citizens inviting their family members to legally live with them.
Given this country's historic emphasis on family reunification, American citizens are allowed to sponsor their foreign-born parents, adult children or siblings to live in the United States. But, according to some supporters of the bill, this brings in all the wrong kind of people as one family member sponsors another, who sponsors another, until, apparently, entire villages find their way into the United States. This is a patently absurd claim given how slowly the immigration process works. It takes close to 17 years for a newly arrived immigrant to gain citizenship and acquire a green card for a sibling, who then has to endure a similar wait to bring the next person in.
Nonetheless, to end this mythical problem of chain migration, the bill created a point-system to rank potential immigrants on their desirability based on, among other things, their education credentials, work skills and even their TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores. This would have certainly put a tidy end to all the "tired and huddled masses" that the Statue of Liberty has been welcoming all these years.
In addition, it would have prevented American businesses from making their own hiring decisions. Currently, when it comes to overseas skilled professionals, employers are able to sponsor whoever they want based on their needs. But under the new point-system, bureaucrats would decide who would get green cards—and employers would then have to pick from them. A similar system in Canada has produced a huge mismatch between the skills of immigrants and the needs of the industry. It is not so uncommon for foreigners with advanced degrees in Canada to end up driving cabs because they can't find jobs commensurate with their skills.
The assumption behind the point-system is that bureaucrats can invent a better immigration policy than the spontaneous choices and needs of Americans.
This bill, even worse for citizens than immigrants, was an affront to everything that America stands for. Its lesson is that the liberties of everyone on American soil are intertwined. America can't defend the liberties of its own citizens while compromising those of immigrants. Its defeat is a resounding victory for American freedom—just in time for the Fourth of July.
Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation.