America's immigration system is badly broken and in desperate need of fixing. And that is precisely why President Barack Obama should not be allowed to touch it. After the bruising battle over ObamaCare, he has simply no political muscle left to resist the horrible restrictionist ideas that are already beginning to arise.
Immigration advocates, particularly from the Latino community, are prodding President Obama to make good on his campaign pledge to revamp the nation's immigration system. They held a rally in the National Mall—at the very moment that the Senate was voting on the controversial health care bill, absurdly enough—demanding action. Similar pressure is coming from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
It is not that anyone believes that a reform bill can actually become law this year. They just want the Senate (where the issue is less radioactive) to vote on something so that there will be a basis for action after the elections.
The problem is that it is painfully evident that any basis established now will be a terrible one—worse than nothing.
Anyone who has had to deal with America's immigration system knows what a crazy, confusing and, at times, cruel mess it is. (Do click on the link here, dear readers, for an eloquent pictorial representation of this point.) It seems to operate on the assumption that it is its patriotic duty to harass anyone wishing to come to America. Even getting a tourist visa for overseas family or friends of Americans is an ordeal. Unless they are from a country with which America has a treaty suspending the visa requirement, they have to convince their local immigration consulate that they have enough property and social ties at home that they won't just drop everything and move in with you permanently!
And what if you do want them to move in with you permanently? Spouses, minor children or parents have the easiest time, one to two years to get permanent residency or green card. Siblings can come too, but only if you are willing to wait till your next lifetime given that it can often take decades to process their green cards. Everyone else—aunts, uncles, grandparents—forget it. They don't qualify.
The fundamental problem with America's immigration system is that it forces Americans to justify to their government why they want to bring someone into the country, instead of requiring the government to justify to them why they can't. Uncle Sam is less gatekeeper, more social engineer. Instead of focusing on keeping out those who pose a genuine security or public health risk—the only immigration policy consistent with ideals of limited government—it is driven, among other things, by a need to manage labor market flows and the national demographic makeup.
Hence, if you are a farmer or a developer looking to bring in fruit pickers or construction workers, you are better off waiting for Angelina Jolie to adopt them than for immigration authorities to grant them a work permit. As for high-tech companies, they are allotted only 85,000 H1-Bs or high-tech work permits every year—a quota that, before the recession, would get filled on the first day the visa became available.
What's more, Washington actually makes industry-specific determinations, so that, right now, foreign nurses and physical therapists have a far easier time getting green cards than engineers and doctors—because it has deemed that there is a shortage of the first two but not of the others. And Uncle Sam gives each country an annual quota for green cards, because, otherwise, who knows, America could be overrun by colored hordes from China and India, upsetting its white, Anglo-Saxon character.
Any reform bill worthy of the name therefore has to fundamentally shift the orientation of America's immigration policy so that it is driven less by arbitrary bureaucratic fiat and more by the genuine needs of the American economy and people. But the leading reform proposal that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina and Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer from New York have put on the table will do the exact opposite.
One of the few bright spots in the bill is that it will create a process for admitting temporary unskilled workers given that none, incredibly enough, exists right now. And it will also create a path for legalization for undocumented aliens already in the country, although how many of the 11 million aliens will actually be able to avail themselves of it is unclear. That's because in order to appease Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the anti-amnesty crowd, the bill will not only impose onerous fines on them for breaking an anti-freedom, irrational law; it will also force them to stand in the back of the green-card-line that for many categories has a decades-long wait. This means that many of the older aliens are likely to die before their turn ever comes.
But in exchange for these tender mercies, the bill will extract a huge price from American employers and workers in terms of lost liberties.
It will step up interior enforcement—code for raiding employers and cracking down on their workforce to round up undocumented workers, a shameful Bush era policy that this administration has continued. But that's not the worst of it. In order to prevent employers from hiring undocumented aliens in the first place, it will for the first time ever require all Americans to carry documents to prove that they are eligible to work. In other words, Americans will not only be forced to carry health care coverage as a condition of lawful residence in the country, thanks to ObamaCare, but they will also have to carry a national ID as a condition of lawful employment in the country, thanks to Graham-Schumer. (Can anyone hear the sound of clicking heels yet?) But the fact is that such draconian measures wouldn't be necessary if the temporary workers program adequately addressed the labor needs of employers.
There is no reason to hope that President Obama will be willing—or able—to fight these measures and get a humane bill that respects the liberties of Americans. Even under the best of circumstances, immigration reform is a rancorous issue that arouses powerful nativist passions. Countering them requires a leader who can appeal to the better angels of Americans and show them how more-open immigration policies are not only consistent with their interests but also their deepest ideals of individual rights and liberties. But few believe that President Obama shares those ideals after his big government takeover of health care. And it is not clear that he even wants to make that case given that he has already strongly endorsed Graham-Schumer—without expressing any reservation about its national ID provision.
The immigration reform debate has already taken off on the wrong foot, and President Obama is not the man to put it back on track. Immigration advocates would do their cause—and everyone else—a favor by recognizing this and stop pushing this issue now. Better to wait a few more years than have to reform the reform.
Shikha Dalmia is a Reason Foundation senior analyst and a biweekly columnist at Forbes, where this column originally appeared.