I want to apologize in advance for the length of this post. My purpose here is to offer up one idea on immigration reform that will hopefully get people thinking, discussing and coming up with ideas. It is in no way intended to be a complete or comprehensive solution to the problem …only one suggestion. Also please note that the proposal is not intended as a solely progressive solution, but rather one that takes into account its ability to be “sold” to the American people. I have tried to deal with the realities as there are, not as I wish them to be.
Immigration reform is about to become the next big wedge issue in upcoming elections. The recent increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric and legislation is evidence of that fact.
Progressives must come up with an effective plan to present to the American people and get ahead on this issue, as the Republicans are already starting to frame the debate and will eventually leave us trying to defend an impossible position. The right has turned to fear of terrorism, veiled racism and nativist sentiments to whip up the debate. Unless a rational, realistic and meaningful counter argument can be made in opposition to them, they will manage to turn the issue into another wedge where they will be representing "American values" and we will be looking very soft and ineffectual.
As someone who has worked in the restaurant industry for more than thirty years in both New York and Miami, I have known hundreds of immigrants both legal and illegal. I have known people from every South and Central American country, the Caribbean, Poles, Irishmen, Russians and Romanians. I have seen the immigration system close up from both sides. Although I am by no means expert on Immigration law or policies, my somewhat unique position has allowed me to see how badly the current system works. It neither protects the American people nor allows reasonable opportunities to immigrants. I would never presume to have all the answers to the problem, but over time I have come up with a few. I figured I could float the ideas out there and get some feedback from the progressive community.
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A quick look at history would show us that every great wave of immigration in this country coincided with a period of economic growth and expansion. The immigrants who arrived during the first great wave of immigration in the early nineteenth century led the great westward expansion. The second wave during the 1840's-1850's helped foster the industrial revolution. The last great wave from 1880-1910, and more importantly their first generation offspring, helped create the post-war boom and the establishment of a vast middle class. We are currently experiencing another great wave of immigration. This time instead of allowing these new immigrants to assimilate and contribute to society, we have relegated them to "illegal" status.
The problem with "illegal immigration" seems to be the "illegal" part of the equation. The problem is not about how to best close the border, it's a question of how to open the borders safely and effectively with a system that can verify identity, ensure legal employment, and foster assimilation. Take the "illegal" part out of the equation and the problem disappears.
Why something must be done
The estimated number of undocumented immigrants in the country varies according who's reporting, the most recent figure being somewhere around 12 million. There are millions of people with false or no identification living and working throughout the country. Many forced by economic conditions to live in low cost housing without records kept, working for cash without records kept, buying goods without records kept. Although the vast majority of these immigrants are hard working people trying to escape starvation, deprivation, and oppression; amongst this sea of humanity there is the possibility that some that wish to do evil hide. Billions of dollars move through an underground cash economy each year, unaccounted for and untaxed. Millions of people live with no hope of ever entering the system, or getting ahead. Each and every day hundreds if not thousands more join their ranks, and there is no practical way of stopping them. We have grown reliant on their labor to the extent that our economy could not function without them. Certainly the system is broken and needs to be fixed.
Our main concerns should be:
Security: We must be able to allow those wishing to come here to work and make a better life to enter the country, while still being able to prevent those that wish to do us harm from getting in
Taxes: We need to bring the underground economy into the tax base
Jobs: We need to protect American jobs and workers by assuring all employers pay the minium wages required by law to all their employees.
Assimilation/Citizenship: We need to provide a mechanism by which immigrants can assimilate and not be forced to live in a separate, second-class society. We must provide a path to citizenship.
WHAT TO DO:
All of the above concerns could be addressed through two simple programs:
One program would allow the Government to verify the identity of every immigrant who enters the country or is already here. . For argument sake let's call this program: The Immigrant Verification and Identification Program (V.I.P.)
The other would facilitate the assimilation of these immigrants by giving them the necessary tools to compete economically, help defer the costs of processing and provided economic incentives and penalties to both immigrants and employers to assure adherence to the system. For the time being let’s call that program: The Immigrant Benefits for Assimilation Trust (B.A T.)
In order to initiate the programs the government would have to use a series of carrots and sticks for both the immigrants and employers. In addition the general public would need to be educated to the fact that in the end all would benefit from these changes.
A general amnesty would have to be given to anyone in the country at present. All quotas would be abolished in regards to country of origin, and immigration status granted all applicants on a first come first serve basis (except in the cases of extreme hardship).
All new applicants would have a waiting period in order for their identities to be checked, but would be guaranteed entry into the system if they check out.
HOW V.I.P. WORKS: Going through the levelsVIP level 1 (mandatory two year period)
All current undocumented immigrants would be given an eighteen month amnesty period to obtain a VIP level 1 card. In order to qualify for the card the immigrant would need to provide proof of identity from their country of origin to be checked both here and abroad for criminal records, financial misconduct, and security risk status. They must also show proof of gainful employment, either by a pay stub, or an affidavit from an employer. An unemployed spouse/partner would be eligible through their partner's employment. (All future immigrants would also require this clearance, and would receive a two month grace period upon arrival to obtain a job.) Those unable to pass the verification process and receive a card after this eighteen month amnesty period would be classified as possible security risks. Employers, landlords, or businesses that did business, employed, or harbored anyone classified as a possible security risk would be subject to criminal prosecution. Those who are classified as possible security risks would have the right to appeal the decision within two months of classification, but would face immediate deportation if the appeal failed.
Once a VIP1 is issued it would be valid for a two year period only. The VIP1 would give the immigrant all the rights afforded by the current Immigrant Work Authorization Card and enter them in the BAT system. It would grant them the ability to work and reside legally in the country and allow them to pay taxes. During this two year period the immigrant would be required to remain in the United States a minimum of 330 days a year, be employed, could not commit any crime( minor misdemeanors excluded), and must attain a very rudimentary knowledge of conversational English (level to be determined by Dept. of Educ.) If an immigrant with VIP1 status was to lose their job for any reason or stop making BAT contributions* through payroll deductions (by working off the books) they would have a grace period to find employment and resume BAT contributions or lose their VIP1 status. At the end of the two year period anyone who had not met all requirements would lose VIP1. The loss of VIP1 status would result in deportation and the loss for all BAT benefits*.
Since only those who could not prove they are who they claim to be, have committed crimes or cannot support themselves would be denied legal status, nearly all illegal immigrants would be eligible for VIP1 status. This should make compliance with the program universal. The cost of the initial processing of the estimated ten million illegal immigrants could be offset through registration fees and future reimbursements from the BAT Trust Fund*.
* see section on Immigrant Benefits for Assimilation Trust Fund (BAT)VIP level 2 (Mandatory two years, valid up to three years)
Having met all VIP1 requirements and passed a rudimentary language exam the immigrant would move on to the second level. VIP2 status would give the immigrant the same rights and privileges as an Alien Resident Card (green card) except for its duration. The immigrant could now travel outside the country for up to three months in any calendar year. Those wishing to repatriate to their countries of origin could do so during the VIP2 period and be eligible to receive 50% of their accrued BAT benefits. Repatriation would make the immigrant ineligible to ever come back into the system again.
During this period the immigrant would be expected to increase their English proficiency, along with the ability to read English at a pre- determined grade level(very elementary .. enough to fill out forms and read labels). The work and criminal restrictions from level one would still apply throughout the VIP2 period.
After two years the immigrant would be eligible to take their Level 3 test. (Possibly an early elementary school level of the English Language Arts Exam mandated by "No Child Left Behind" could be given as an assessment. Grade level 2 or 3?). Those in need of more time to learn can take longer but must complete their test before their VIP2 expires at the end of three years.
At the end of this period anyone not meeting the language standards would be returned to VIP1 status for a period of no more than one additional year. At the end of that year all requirements would have to be met or VIP1 status could be revoked risking deportation. The immigrant would still be eligible to receive 50% of their accrued BAT benefits.VIP level 3 (Mandatory one year, valid up to four years)
Having passed a level 2 exam the immigrant gains VIP3 status and begins working towards Citizenship or Voluntary Non-Citizen Status . The immigrant could now travel outside the country for up to six months in any calendar year. Those wishing to repatriate to their countries of origin could do so during the VIP3 period and be eligible to receive 70% of their accrued BAT benefits. Repatriation would still make the immigrant ineligible to ever come back into the system again.
During this four-year period the immigrant would be required learn the required knowledge to pass a citizenship exam. They also must gain a proficiency in English to take the test as it is presently given. The work and criminal restrictions from level one would still apply throughout the VIP3 period.
After one year an immigrant would be eligible to take their Citizenship Test. After the maximum four year period all immigrants must complete this test to remain in the country. (An additional one year extension could be authorized on an "in good faith" basis) Those who want to retain citizenship from their country of origin could opt for Voluntary Non-Citizen Status but still must pass the exam to retain their immigration status. Passing the Citizenship test allows the immigrant to receive full BAT benefits, and full citizenship
The VIP program allows immigrants to assimilate at there own rate. Some will be able to complete the program in the minimum five year period, while others could take up to ten years. Having completed the VIP program the immigrant would have at the minimum, enough English comprehension to function in everyday society. The program would help them to compete economicaly and provided the minimum tools for economic advancement. The cost of this training could come from a mix of funding from the BAT Fund, fees paid directly by the immigrants themselves, possible employer or corporate contributions and from already existing organizations that provide immigrant services. Exceptions in the program could be made for temporary workers to allow them to legally work for short periods of time, but BAT contributions would still be required with special eligibility requirements to receive benefits.
BAT: Benefits for Assimilation Trust
BAT would be a mandatory trust fund that all new immigrants would pay into through payroll deductions until competition of the assimilation process. The fund could be either privately administered like Workman's Compensation, or government run like Social Security. Each employee and employer in the fund would contribute a fixed percent from each paycheck.* The moneys in the fund would be invested and grown, and be fully refundable to both the immigrant and employer if the immigrant meets all the requirements of the assimilation program. This fund would mirror Social Security in practice and would be handled as such for immigrants who would not be required to contribute to SSI until/if they become full citizens.
*A 4.2% contribution from the employee, coupled with a 8.2% matching contribution from employers would yield a minimum $1700 per year contribution for minimum wage employees working a forty hour week. This mirrors the total 12.4% SSI contribution already in existence that the immigrant would not be required to pay. The only difference is a 2% shift in responsiblity from the immigrant to the employer, normaly each would contribute 6.2%.
The purpose of the fund would be to:
1. Provide incentives to immigrants for completing differing levels of assimilation.
2. Take pressure off our social service system by providing an alternate source of money to pay for services.
3. Allow immigrants to accumulate a "nest-egg" to start a business or own a home once they complete the assimilation process.
4. Be used as a deterrent for those who would commit criminal acts or only wish to come here for very short periods of time in order to sent money back to their countries of origin.
5. Encourage employers to foster a culture of assimilation amongst their immigrant workers.
6. Give some slight economic advantage to employers who employ native workers at the very lowest end of economic scale.
7. Allow a method to track the work history of immigrant workers and ensure that they work on the books.
How BAT would work
1. When the immigrant enters the VIP system they are issued a BAT number (similar to a S.S. number). This number links them to their personal BAT account.
2. Each immigrant and employer would pay into the personal BAT account through weekly payroll contributions. These contributions would be invested by the fund managers in whatever method they deem best to ensure the greatest growth while still preserving the integrity of the principle.
3. If an immigrant was to use any social service during the period the money in his personal BAT account would be used to pay the first portion of the bill (could be done as a percentage of the amount in the account or fixed dollar amount like $1000 per incident). This would apply mostly to Medicaid as the immigrant must remain employed during the whole assimilation process they would hopefully not qualify for other social service programs under most circumstances.
4. When the immigrant finishes the VIP3 level and passes their citizenship exam and language proficiency exam both the immigrant and his employer (past and present) would receive back their percentage of the moneys in that immigrants BAT account. This amount would be determined by the amount of principle contributed and the profits made by the fund. A variable percentage would have been deducted annually for administration and contributions to a General Immigrant Fund to assist in providing assimilation services for immigrants.
Funding and administration of BAT
1. It should be safe to assume that the BAT fund itself would show considerable growth within the first few years of inception. There will be a certain percent of immigrants who, for whatever reasons, will be unable to complete the various levels of the VIP system. They would then forfeit some or all of their money in the BAT general account. This surplus could then by used to offset administration costs, training and assimilation education. Other services for immigrants, employers and society in general could also be funded through this surplus.
2. Some immigrants will also voluntarily repatriate to their countries of origin at various times during their assimilation process receiving only a percentage of their account, leaving the rest in the General Fund.
BAT: Other considerations
1. Since an immigrant would initially cost an employer 2% more than an American citizen to employ, the BAT system should create an environment more favorable to citizens. This is particularly true in the case of large scale minimum wage employers such as Walmart or MacDonalds. The 2% surcharge for employing immigrant labor would also give employers a monetary incentive to foster a culture of assimilation in the workplace, perhaps setting up language or mentoring programs. Since an employer receives back his BAT contribution when an employee completes assimilation, employee turnover should also be lessened by the program.
2. The BAT fund would provide the immigrant not only an equity interest, but also the oppurtunity to become an equal member American society. After time this monetary incentive would be replaced by the language skills, cultural knowledge, and other skills that would allow for the American Dream to be attainment.
3. Although the program might cause an initial spike in new immigration, after time equilibrium should be reached. Due to the fact that an immigrant must be employed, be serious about assimilation, and be willing to make an initial minimum five year monetary sacrifice; only those with the best prospect of completing the program would be coming. If the supply of new immigrants far exceeded the number of available jobs, BAT employment restrictions would cull out the unneeded immigrant workers. Those with the most time in the system would be the most desirable for employers since they would be closer to completing the program and receiving the employer payout, leaving those new immigrants with no job prospects to fail out of the system. Hence the system should eventually become self policing.
4. Since there would be no "off the books" option for immigrants because they must maintain their BAT contribution schedule or risk deportation, employers would be unable to use cheaper workers to replace either American workers or those immigrants in the VIP system.
5. The BAT payouts made to successful immigrants (over $13,000 after eight years) would hopefully be reinvested in immigrant communities to help open businesses, further education, or revitalize dying neighborhoods.
6. The tax benefits from both the legally employed immigrants and the underground economy that services them would help balance government budgets from the local level up.
7. Since immigrants currently working in the U.S. with false identification already pay taxes and Social Security that they get no credit for, they should welcome the BAT program. Although they will have more deducted from their weekly paychecks, the prospect of receiving tax refunds should offset their concerns
I am sure that this plan is far from perfect and could easily be criticized on certain details, but it is intended as merely a starting point for meaningful discussion. Those from the "Build a big wall and kick out all illegals" camp will most likely attack the plan as too naïve and liberal. Others from the left will claim the plan is unfair to immigrants, has undue restrictions and reeks of Reaganism. Any plan to deal with immigration reform will have detractors from both sides of the debate, but unless we begin to look at the problem rationally and realistically we will get nowhere.
In 1790 Congress passed the first Naturalization Act, which stated that "...any alien, being a free white person, may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States..." From that time forward waves of new immigrants have entered the country. Sometimes these immigrants were met with open arms, other times they were scorned. The current wave of immigration is no different than those of the past. It is the restrictions placed on legal immigration starting in the late 1920's and lasting until the present day that have prevented the assimilation of new immigrants into society and created the large problem we have today. Until we view immigration as a continuing process that keeps our nation vital and our economy growing, we will never "solve" this "problem"