In Reply to Mitt Romney and David Frum

Posted November 28, 2011

David Frum is a former special assistant to George W. Bush and a frequent political commentator who maintains a popular online community, FrumForum.  In a recent CNN column, he weighs in on the heated immigration debate, siding with Mitt Romney in opposing Newt Gingrich’s recent assertion that some form of a legalization program must be coupled with continuing enforcement.  The following is my reply.

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I believe Gingrich is more right and Romney (and Frum) are more wrong here. There will have to be compromise in this legislation. There are very few absolutes in U.S. immigration.

Gingrich doesn’t deny that enforcement is a two-pronged approach, part securing the border, part employer sanctions.

The guest worker issue likewise requires a duality of approach that doesn’t cater to absolutist socioeconomic principles. We must address low-skilled workers, the poor tired huddled masses (as it were – now more like the guys hanging around Home Depot) as well as the engineers and scientists so valued by the business community and research institutions.

Current low-skilled guest worker visa programs that are tied to seasonal or agricultural employment are not the problem. Existing J and H categories (exclusive of H-1B) will have to become part of the solution, tweaked, bifurcated and expanded somehow to provide a semi-orderly transition from the past to the future for working illegals who would otherwise have no basis to qualify for a legalization program. Frum and Romney apparently dismiss this technocratic approach entirely, until the border is secure, and they’re wrong. First build the roads, then build the towns. Colonials had the luxury of vice versa; we no longer do.

There’s not much light between Romney and Gingrich on the demand for highly skilled workers, including engineers, scientists, executives and investors. The cap on H-1B visas was boosted successfully to 195,000 earlier this decade, then dropped back. Why are we still stuck on 65k? And why limit graduate students to 20,000 job offers? Double the numbers and use IT to build in flexibility and economically decentralize the system as much as possible. Improving the existing immigration system is the only policy absolute, and the only thing that will disincentivize states from going their own way.

DOL and ETA are agencies who earn their tax dollars. You can’t simplify the employment-based immigration process the way Frum does here, especially regarding minimum wage levels, as though enabling such programs is nothing but a conspiracy to take advantage of cheap labor. To the extent it is, in individual cases, you cannot eradicate the base liberal democratic notion of freedom of contract between willing employer and willing employee entirely. I mean, seriously, how big a role should government really play in our lives? Which is the more conservative position here? Neither Romney nor Frum have it; they’re buying into partisan rhetoric.

The EB-5 program can and should be modified to loosen ridiculous accounting restrictions and expanded to better target job-creating opportunities. E-2s should be able to adjust to EB-5 permanent residents if their business numbers meet established goals. For chrissakes, John Kerry is leading the charge on this.

Regarding hearings, pull your head out of the sand, Mitt, David. Of course you have to maintain (and improve) a large system for hearings for those within the U.S., conditionally. There is a qualitative difference between the 28 year-old Irish guy joy-riding around Florida on an expired visa waiver, and the 18 year old freshman who was dragged through the desert by her careless mother 15 years ago. To whom do you deny a hearing?

And for those that do deserve to let the door hit their butts on the way out – by far the majority, I posit – expedited removal only works at the border. Habeus corpus rules from within. If you commit to zero amnesty, you commit to a gazillion hearings, or you commit to nothing at all. It doesn’t make sense.

Would there be backlogs and strains in the system, long waits and further injustices? Of course, when dealing with a human problem on such a massive scale. Immigration is, in part, a dirty, ugly, very human business. But are we beyond possessing the confidence in our own ability as a country to institute a fair and workable legal and administrative federal system to handle to mission? We better not be, or things are worse off here than most currently imagine. If we only resort to enforcement and arrests, keeping the same antiquated visa classification and quota system, we’re basically creating the equivalent of another drug war, a huge waste of human resources and a pathetic stagnation of human progress in the “land of liberty.” And, perhaps more dangerously, encouraging states to go their own way.

And why not citizenship? Gingrich has it right. Because they didn’t earn it, that’s why. Not because they can’t vote and they would therefore be a ’subordinate class’.  Too much abstract political thought on that issue. They are a subordinate class, and my guess is millions would willingly accept that subordinate status if the choice were between continuing to live and work in the United States as a red-card holder versus returning to a violent Mexico, an impoverished Guatemala, or to Greece, or Lebanon, or Iran.

The more pronounced impact of enabling a legalization program but denying ultimate citizenship to those that might otherwise qualify (naturalization is selective anyway, it’s not like you just sign up) is that, in our chain-based family immigration system, non-citizens cannot sponsor family to follow to the same extent citizens can. In our rush to humanely fix the illegal problem, we shouldn’t compound the problem by rewarding the “exceptions” i.e., those that would qualify for “amnesty,” with a future ability to sponsor their own relatives, even more unintended and undeserving immigrants, to follow. That’s ludicrous.

So, no, sorry buddy, we may let you stay if you stay out of trouble, pay taxes and work like normal Americans do, and we appreciate you standing during the playing of the national anthem, but you have not earned the rewards of American citizenship – especially the right to vote, but also the right to sponsor more family to immigrate to America.

The stagnant condition of the American workforce is a symptom of a larger problem unrelated to our immigration laws – the problem of stagnation of human ingenuity and innovation in a new world order suffering through a constipated (but eventual) metamorphosis into a modern economy. We now truly live in a global information age. We need to adjust. I would argue that the final chapter to the tragedy of 9/11, written a decade on, ought to contain the good news of bin Laden’s demise coupled with a determined national effort to restore America’s grand tradition of immigration. If we don’t reach agreement on this hallmark issue, find a workable solution and move past the xenophobia, the fright of the terrorist boogeyman, and the petty domestic politics of a bad economy that will not last forever, we are only defeating ourselves.

Gingrich has the high ground in this argument. I currently support Romney and hope he’ll articulate himself better than “for peet’s sake, I’m running for office” on the critical issue of immigration reform.  If he doesn’t, he may lose my support for the nomination.