By Daniel Weintraub
As Congress begins what is likely to be a lengthy and contentious debate over immigration reform, California has a huge stake in the outcome.
We have the nation’s biggest population of immigrants, both legal and undocumented.
We are the country’s biggest farm state, measured by the value of our production, and those farms are largely dependent on immigrant workers.
And we are, arguably, the innovation capital of the world, with much of that innovation driven by immigrant engineers, software writers and entrepreneurs.
If Congress and President Obama can somehow agree on legislation that normalizes the status of immigrants already here, secures the borders, and fixes problems in the legal immigration system, California will almost certainly be the biggest beneficiary. This is something that could help rich and poor alike, and most people in between.
The proposal released earlier this month by a bipartisan group of eight senators seeks to do just that.
The legislation would create a path to citizenship (some call it amnesty) for those here without documentation. It would create a new guest worker program for agriculture and other low-wage industries. It would expand the number of visas available to highly educated people and entrepreneurs. And it would put in place new measures aimed at reducing the flow of illegal immigration.
Why are all of these things so important?
California is home to about 10 million foreign-born residents — more than twice as many as the next biggest state, New York. Those immigrants represent more than 25 percent of the state’s population and more than one out of every four immigrants living in the United States.
California also leads the nation in undocumented immigration. Estimates peg the number of undocumented immigrants here at about 2.5 million.
Most of those undocumented immigrants live on the edges of society. They are not eligible for welfare or other public assistance or routine health care, although they are treated if they show up in a hospital emergency room. They work in a cash economy, often for below minimum wage and in unsafe conditions, because they are in no position to complain.
While as a group they are probably a boost to the economy because their low wages increase overall productivity, they do depress wages and take jobs from others on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, including many other immigrants. Since they are not going to be rounded up and sent home, it would be better if we found a way to bring them out into the open so they could live normal lives and work under the same rules as everyone else.
The Senate compromise tries to do this in a couple of ways. First, it lets undocumented workers who were here before the end of 2011 to register and seek legal resident status, which could take a decade or more. They would have to pay fines and any back taxes owed, learn English and meet work requirements. As a group, their ability to obtain legal status in ten years would depend on the nation meeting benchmarks for border security.
The bill would also create a new guest worker program for up to 200,000 low-wage workers per year and separately expand a guest worker program for agriculture, with up to about 330,000 farmworkers allowed into the country to work. This is an important step because most it would allow workers to enter and leave the country legally, and it would regulate and, probably, raise their wages. The current system actually creates incentives for illegal workers, once here, to remain, even if they lose their jobs, because they fear that if they leave they will never be able to return.
Just as crucial, and only slightly less controversial, are provisions to allow and even encourage more high-skilled people to come to the U.S. and remain here. The bill would raise the cap on a visa commonly used for high-skilled workers from 65,000 to 110,000 per year, with 25,000 more reserved for immigrants with advanced degrees from a U.S. school.
A new, so called “merit visa” would allow 250,000 immigrants per year under a points system, with points awarded based on education and employment, among other factors. And a special “start-up” visa would be available for up to 10,000 foreign-born entrepreneurs who create companies here that would create at least five jobs and have at least $500,000 in funding from investors.
Although some groups representing engineers have protested the expansion of visas for high-skilled workers, studies suggest that more immigration from this group will, over time, mean more jobs, not fewer. A recent study showed that immigrants created about half of the start-up companies in the Silicon Valley.
Finally, the bill includes provisions to improve border security. It sets a goal of providing surveillance of 100 percent of the border with Mexico and turning back 90 percent of those seeking to cross illegally. It envisions using drone aircraft, additional agents and, if necessary, more fencing. A new online system for checking the immigration status of potential workers would also be established.
The details of the proposal will be examined in Senate hearings and debate over the coming weeks, and later in the House of Representatives. There will probably be some changes.
But if the basic outlines of this compromise survive, California could see a path to citizenship, and out of poverty, for millions of its residents, the creation of thousands of new jobs, and a more secure border. In short, for California, this could be the most important piece of federal legislation in a generation.
California has always been a state of immigrants — from Mexico and Spain, from the United States before statehood, from Asia, Europe and Africa. Our success has been built on immigration (and domestic migration) as industrious, ambitious and creative people converged here from all over the world.
Now, with our growth slowing and our population aging, immigration will be more important than ever. Getting it right is crucial.
Daniel Weintraub has covered California public policy for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report at www.calhealthreport.org