That would be a pity, because there are some good things in the proposal. Most important, it produces a reasonably fair solution to the problem of what to do about the 12 million or so illegal immigrants already in America, most of them working hard at low-paid and disagreeable jobs. Deporting a population the size of Ohios is impossible, economically illiterate and morally wrong. The new bill would make the 12 million legal, and offer them a path, albeit a tortuous and vindictive one (who, other than the airline industry, gains from forcing people to return home for an interview), to full citizenship.
The right doesnt like this and points out that amnesties (which this really isnt, given the fines and hurdles involved) have in the past drawn fresh waves of migrants. So the other side of the bargain gives conservatives everything they could wish for in terms of razor-wired fences, surveillance drones, armed border guards and a programme that will force companies to check the legality of their workers. They are probably necessary to win support and rebuild trust in the immigration system. No bill would pass without them.
The bad part of the deal is what happens to would-be immigrants once all those sensors and spy-planes are in place. The bill proposes a dual system. A guest-worker programme would allow 400,000 people a year to enter the country to work for two years, after which they must go home for a year, with a six-year cap on the total time they can spend in America. The other part is a new method of granting residence permits, carrying the right to work. Such green cards currently go mostly to relatives of American citizens or to people sponsored by an employer. The bill would bring in a points system for 380,000 people a year, as in use in Canada and Australia. Permits for family members would be restricted, to cover only spouses and young children. Employers would have less ability to sponsor the people they need.
There are several problems. One is that extended families help build vibrant communities in a way that guest workers dont. Second, the government should not be in the business of telling companies whom they ought to hire. There are ways round this, such as awarding points not for specific jobs, but for in-demand professions and leaving the statisticians to find out what the market wants; the Senate bill does do this to an extent. But the snag is that most of the green cards will be hoovered up by Indian software designers, Bosnian engineers or the similarly blessed. America does indeed need such folk: its skills shortage is a significant constraint on its economy, and an invitation for firms to outsource jobs, so moving to a points system needs to be part of a solution. But it also needs legions of the less-skilled, too. Tweak the system as you will, any merit-based system will inevitably leave poorly educated young Mexicans as guest workers, not green-card holders.
That will continue to mean a large, poorly paid and constantly rotating alien underclass with little stake in American society. Nor, in all likelihood, will there be enough of them: on May 23, the Senate voted to scale the guest worker programme back to 200,000. So the illegals will keep comingexcept that now their journey will be still more dangerous and they will be even further beyond the law. The current bill is better than nothing; but unless it is improved (the opposite looks likely, given the difficulties the proposal is in), it will not solve the main problem of the illegals.
The Economist Newspaper Limited 2007