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Politicians in Washington, D.C., used to talk a lot about “comprehensive immigration reform.” It was envisioned as a grand bargain providing a pathway to citizenship for people living here illegally, increasing border security and modernizing guest worker programs.
Politicians don’t talk about that anymore. They are setting their expectations lower.
“Right now, I’m not seeing a willingness to tackle that in a bipartisan fashion. I do see willingness to tackle these small parts,” U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, told me in a recent interview.
Miller-Meeks is among a group of moderate immigration reformers in Congress working on the “small parts” of the immigration system. The first-term representative in the past few months has signed on as a sponsor to two bills that would modestly bolster legal immigration — one to offer permanent legal status to “documented Dreamers” and another to preserve unused visas from the past two years.
They are good bills but that says nothing about their prospects in Congress.
The America’s Children Act, introduced in July, would benefit some 200,000 children of legal visa holders. Under current law, they are only covered under their parents’ status until age 21. If the young adults are unable to get their own visas, they have to live in the country illegally or face deportation.
The bill is aimed at so-called “documented Dreamers.” Confoundingly, the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy only applied to children of unauthorized immigrants.
“They, for all intents and purposes, are Americans. … It’s not fair to have people who have played by the rules, who are here contributing to their communities, be deported,” Miller-Meeks said.
The Preserving Employment Visas Act, introduced this month, would roll over hundreds of thousands of unused visas from fiscal years 2020 and 2021. Some of those authorizations are not subject to the arbitrary per-country cap on visas so the bill would be especially helpful in addressing the backlog of applicants from high-volume countries such as India.
In a country with workforce shortages across seemingly every sector, it would be foolish to turn away talented workers just because the federal government is bad at processing paperwork. But that’s what we are doing.
They are good bills but that says nothing about their prospects in Congress. The legislative process has devolved into a performative spectacle of political gamesmanship where the prizes are social media shares and campaign donations, not policy accomplishments.
We know many in Congress are averse to doing the easy things with no assurance that the hard things will get done. That dynamic is on full display right now with Democrats’ infighting that pits a popular infrastructure bill against a less popular social spending grab bag.
Twice this century, federal policymakers have made significant pushes for real immigration reform — once under George W. Bush in 2006 and again under Barack Obama in 2013. Both efforts failed, caught between Democrats’ economic protectionism and Republicans’ nativism.
In any other sector, conservatives would readily recognize this as an overgrown federal regulatory scheme that needs to be reformed with a wrecking ball rather than a sledgehammer.
What too many of my fellow conservatives fail to see is that our immigration system is an inefficient federal bureaucracy on steroids. It is the opposite of what any freedom-loving, small-government American ought to favor.
Take the unused visas as an example. The backlog is being blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic, but the immigration system for many years before that has suffered from delays, backlogs and wait lists. We tell people to come “the right way,” but we make it almost impossible to do so.
The federal government’s pending immigration caseload grew by 85 percent from 2015 through 2020, even as the number of applications and petitions remained steady, according to an August report from the Government Accountability Office. The total caseload was estimated at 19 million in February, though that’s probably inaccurate because the government can’t accurately track closed cases from years ago.
The federal government has more than 50 categories of visas, with nondescript alphanumeric names and their own confusing rules. In any other sector, conservatives would readily recognize this as an overgrown federal regulatory scheme that needs to be reformed with a wrecking ball rather than a sledgehammer.
Analysts blame the delays in part on the huge volume of paperwork required from applicants. Under the previous administration, required documents for several applications increased — in at least one case, from six pages to 20 pages.
“This has existed for more than one administration. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed,” Miller-Meeks said.
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