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Opinion: Columnists

Shikha Dalmia: Democratic obstacles to immigration reform

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On immigration reform, Republicans are supposed to be the bad guys and Democrats the good guys. Republicans think only about their own political interests, Democrats only about poor immigrants and the country.

The part about Republicans is certainly true. But the part about Democrats? Not quite.

Democrats could likely pass comprehensive immigration reform today without sacrificing any immigrant -- legal or illegal, high-tech or low-skilled -- if they'd simply give up their quest for a new vote bank.

Every aspect of our immigration system is broken, especially the employment-based part.

A majority of foreign techies can't get a work permit or H1-B because of the insanely low annual cap on these visas. And if they do get one, they have to wait decades for their green cards because those, too, have an insanely low cap. During this time, these workers can't switch jobs and their spouses can't work. In effect, they and their families are in indentured servitude to their sponsoring company. Every sensible lawmaker aside from a small band of ultra-restrictionists -- largely though not exclusively in the GOP -- agrees that removing these quotas upon quotas is a noble goal.

But Democrats want "comprehensive" -- as opposed to piecemeal -- immigration reform that simultaneously tackles not just the issues of high-skilled workers, but also low-skilled ones, including amnesty for a very large and mostly Latino unauthorized population. Republicans claim that unless the border is sealed, an amnesty deal would only encourage more border jumping.

This is backward thinking. Latinos come to the country illegally not because they like breaking the law, but because they have no choice. If landing H1-Bs is hard, landing H2-Bs -- temporary work permits that nonagricultural low-skilled foreigners need -- is nearly impossible. Latinos who get them have to leave immediately after their job is done. They can't stay on and apply for green cards. The upshot is that they are forced to either enter illegally or stay illegally. Or both.

It is not fair to penalize Latinos who responded to such perverse incentives by denying them amnesty. And fixing these incentives for future Latinos would require creating a usable guest worker program complete with a green card option, just like skilled workers have.

Republicans understand the importance of incentives, so the real reason they are resisting is that they fear that amnesty will hand Democrats millions of new voters -- which is precisely why Democrats won't give an inch on the issue.

Democrats' insistence on comprehensive reform makes sense to the extent that fixing the high-skilled component piecemeal would leave Republicans little incentive to return to the table to tackle the problem of unauthorized Latinos. However, this doesn't mean that citizenship for illegals can't be deferred if they are given a path to legalization now.

It would be far preferable from the standpoint of the American polity to extend full citizenship to the unauthorized population sooner rather than later. It is simply not healthy for a country founded on equality to have in its midst a permanent underclass that is taxed but can't vote.

But from the standpoint of the illegals themselves, "green-cards-now-citizenship-later" would be an acceptable compromise. They want to come out of the shadows and build a life in broad daylight. They really want to be able to drive cars legally, and not necessarily to hit the polling booths. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of the 5.4 million Mexicans in the United States who are eligible for naturalization haven't applied for it.

Rush Limbaugh, a fierce critic of amnesty, recently said he would be willing to go along if its beneficiaries weren't able to vote for some years. This isn't exactly noble, but it is progress.

But instead of building on such openings, Democrats seem determined to hold out for the full enchilada. Last week, they even excoriated poor Gov. Jeb Bush, an ardent advocate for regularizing immigrants' status, just because his latest book flirts with the idea of legalization short of full citizenship. For his labors, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., even called him a "fool."

In short, to garner more Latino votes, Democrats seem willing to hold hostage a reform package that might: fix the existing guest worker and permanent residency program for high-skilled workers; create a new guest worker and a permanent residency program for future low-skilled workers; and hand green cards to unauthorized immigrants.

Six years ago, Republican stupidity torpedoed a Republican president's reform efforts. Now Democratic cupidity might derail a Democratic president's reform efforts. The victims then as now will be immigrants of all stripes and hues -- not to mention the U.S. economy. It'll be interesting to see what President Obama does about it.

Examiner Columnist Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.

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