"Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves."
-- Abraham Lincoln
President Lincoln may have been talking about slavery in the above quote, but the words transcend the topic. They reach the level of humanity as a whole, speaking to our unalienable Rights and equality of opportunity which serve as the foundation for our great nation. I use it here in a thesis on immigration reform because any discussion about immigrants and immigration must begin from this one universal reality: immigrants are human beings.
Shocker, I know. But this point gets lost in the debates back and forth. One side will focus on the humanity aspect and the need to preserve life while the other side focuses on the economic impact. Both sides will invoke fears to convey their ideology. "Innocent children and babies will die," they might say. "They will steal your jobs," others might say. "We cannot afford to take care of everyone," another group may chime in. All these points are correct in varying degrees. How we address them all is critical, because we must address them all in some fashion.
Before beginning, let us divide immigrants into two distinct groups. In Group A, you have immigrants that are here to seek a better life. They are usually poor, come from modesty in another country, and want a chance at success for themselves, their family, and their posterity. They risk life and limb, possibly running from oppressive regimes, gang violence, or war for this opportunity. In Group B, you have the well educated, employed, and economically viable members of their home society that want a greater chance at success. Maybe they found love here, maybe they want a job in a better climate, maybe they wish to escape the political tragedies going on elsewhere in the world. Both A and B are immigrants, but if we are honest with ourselves as a people, most of the complaints and problems with immigration relate to Group A. Because of the economic practicality of Group B, the get excluded from the discussion. Fair or not, cynical or not, I believe this to be true. And I dislike this distinction. It's unfair to both groups and purposefully steers immigration reform in one direction at the exclusion of the other.
I seek to change this by offering a unified reform path for all immigrants.
First let's discuss the current state of affairs. There are somewhere in the range of 10 to 13 million illegal immigrants in the country.1 The US Customers and Border Protection proposed budget for 2015 is $13+ billion.2 This is a 200% increase from 2004 levels of $6.7 billion.3 Border Patrol alone has seen its budget more than triple from 2000 to 2014.4 Building fences or a wall (since fences can be cut amongst other reasons) would cost tens of billions of dollars for the US-Mexico border alone.5 Mass deportation, while being of questionable legality, also has price tags in the hundreds of billions of dollars.6 There were roughly 75,000 deportations for immigration violations in 2014 based on deportation case history.7 If we take the deportation case high of 193,000 in 2006, the timeline for mass deportations of all current illegal immigrants would take 58+ years. Naturally the number of cases supported each year could go up, but there is no way to find, try, and deport all illegal immigrants in a timely fashion.
In the amount of time required to deport all illegal immigrants, a vast majority of them could fulfill a path to citizenship. They could hold jobs, earn wages, pay taxes, make friends, find love, support a family, and overall partake in their unalienable Rights through the American Dream of equality of opportunity. Those are pretty compelling reasons for the estimated 40% of illegal immigrants who are illegal simply because they overstayed their visa.8 This applies not just to cross-border service industry workers, but to students and white collar employees as well. Illegal immigrants contribute much to our society both in terms of workforce and even in taxes.9 Anyone who claims illegals as a whole don't pay taxes and/or have never paid taxes is lying to you.
The Social Security Administration in 2013 said illegals contributed over $10 billion in taxes to social security which they may never get back due to lack of citizenship (illegals do not collect social security).10 Even if they do get tax credits back, that is simply how the system works. Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITIN's) are used both by foreign nationals of all types, legal or illegal. This is because tax payment requires a form of identification and those who do not qualify for social security, like a citizen of Monaco here on business or a professor from the United Kingdom here to teach military history, need other means of contributing. IRS filings trump questions of legality!11 Taxation without representation is ok if you're not conducting business here legally. Taxes are paid even though they cannot collect social security, are not eligible for Medicare, cannot even get food stamps.12
Now that we've established a baseline for discussion- namely that there are a lot of illegal immigrants, that lots arrive legally, that they pay taxes, that we can't afford mass deportations, than building walls is a bad ROI, and that they are just as eligible for unalienable Rights and equality of opportunity as anyone on planet Earth- let us discuss the problem: how do we fix this? My proposal is three-fold: address the foreign policy problems which lead to immigration in the first place, fix the visa system for all immigrants, and provide a path to citizenship.
Foreign policy as a whole is a completely separate discussion, but very much relates to immigration reform. The major reason for immigration in the first place is because America is that awesome of a country compared to illegal's homelands. Mexico, for example, has been in the news a lot for a plethora of drug and gang violence. In the Mid East, refugees and immigrants seek new homes across Europe.13 Geography plays a major role in illegal immigration. Migrants from Central America usually don't go across the Atlantic. As such, problems in foreign nations of geographic proximity become as much an immigration reform issue as they are a foreign policy issue.
Our foreign policy must turn back to the Western Hemisphere and address problems with Central and South American nations. There are a lot of them. Mexico's problems are America's problems when half of illegal immigrants come from there.14 Same with other countries in the region. The corruption in Brazil15, violence in El Salvador that could lead to a second civil war16, tenuous peace talks in Colombia with the FARC17, political crisis in Guatemala18, constant problems in Venezuela19, political change in Honduras20, anti-government sentiment in Ecuador21, the $50 billion canal plan to boost Nicaragua's economy is going nowhere22, and more. Lending a hand to bring more stability and economic growth to our side of the planet will help curb the desire for immigration. It will also provide other opportunities for companies here to go international by providing more stability in those other nations.
Such tasks are not easy, though. Not too long ago, the US and Mexico put aside past differences to combat the drug cartels in the region. But the recent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) may bring that aide to a halt.23 I understand there is a source of pride and responsibility by a nation not wanting outside interference in its own affairs, but everyone must acknowledge the problems in Mexico, especially, warrant greater overall involvement. Delays hurt both nations- Mexico via corruption and violence, America via the influx of drugs, gang violence, and immigration abundance. Now is not the time to drag our heels.
After foreign policy, visa reforms need to be implemented. The current system has many restrictions to who can get them, how long the last, what to do about expiration, and other problems. To start, consider the number of visas available to highly-skilled STEM individuals; H-1B visas are constantly in demand by companies seeking knowledgeable workers, but the program also faces resistance and backlash from Americans who see foreign workers take what they learn and go back home.24 H-1B visas are only valid for three years and can be renewed only once, so it's very likely that the worker would go home. The alternative is permanent residency via a green card or a path to citizenship. Green cards are expensive, making it tough for the worker to get one and an additional cost to businesses that could be avoided.25
I'm of the opinion that the H-1B shortage is real. There is a demand for skilled workers, especially in IT fields and the limit on H-1B visas hurts those companies. Why they hire non-native, I cannot say say for sure. In some cases, the answer is because there aren't enough of those particular skilled workers in America. For example, how many people with multiple CCIE's exist in America compared to the demand? In other cases, the answer is because foreign labor is cheaper and, being a H-1B salaried employee means horrible IT working conditions. This results in a well-meaning, good intentioned program becoming crap because of abuses by companies seeking to maximize profits.
To combat the H-1B visa problem and to given immigrants another viable visa option, I would propose a startup visa program. As I've mentioned before, startups and small businesses are the biggest job creators in the country. Not only that, but foreign immigrants are twice as likely as Americans to start a business. Which makes sense because people pursue the American Dream with opportunity provided away from their home country. Startup visas address multiple parts of the problem: getting skilled workers, having more startups, creating more jobs, bringing in more tax revenue, and providing opportunities for maximizing unalienable Rights to those who may not be able to do so in their origin country.26 Not only that, but H-1B and F-1 (student) visa holders would be eligible to "upgrade" to a startup visa.
Under this program, 200,000 startup visas would be available each year. This number would grow or shrink after the first year the program is implemented based on market demands including startup failures, unemployment rates, job openings in areas, etc. There will be education, income, and previous work experience requirements for those currently lacking a visa who wish to start a business. For current H-1B holders, requirements would be based on education, income, previous work experience, and possible business plan; current F-1 holders would be required to complete a college education (bachelor's degree, at least) and provide a business plan for the startup before being eligible. This way, bright college students that we've taught get opportunities to continue participating in our economy, existing H-1B workers that are being taken advantage of with poor treatment in salaried positions get opportunity to "change jobs," employers abusing H-1B visas are encouraged to stop lest they lose out on those workers, and skilled workers from abroad are given a chance at a new life in the greatest country on the planet.27
Startup visas absolutely do not come with capital investment. All the startup visa does is grant permission for the individual to begin the entrepreneurial process on American soil. These differ from the employment based (EB) visas currently available by the nature of the visa length and work conditions. Startup visas are time sensitive and come with revenue requirements. Your business must be legally formed within three months and must be generating revenue within 12 months. The amount of revenue generated must be equal to the full-time median personal income level for America, prorated against the time the business has been "open." This aids those who have to find a location, get equipment, build software, etc and may not be able to generate revenue on day one. Venture capital funds would count towards startup revenue if the VC is accredited in the US. Once revenue begins accumulating, the startup must pass the revenue metrics 12 months later or face deportation. Startup visa holders lose their visa if another entity buys their business, if their business goes bankrupt or fails, if they get deported, or if they get a job with a green card from another employer. Should the visa holder be deported or found guilty of a criminal offense, their business and any intellectual property is forfeit to the federal government and public domain.
Startup visas holders cannot apply for any other visa while in the startup program.28 Deportation would bar one from getting another startup visa for 5 years. After 12 months under the program, if the immigrant meets the revenue requirements, the visa gets extended for another year with the same revenue requirements. After 18 months, job hiring requirements come into play where the startup must hire at least one other full time employee. A second full-time employee would need to be hired by month 36. At the end of 36 months, the visa holder becomes eligible for a green card and permanent residency status. When you think about it, if someone comes to America and starts a business that produces enough revenue to have three full time employees at the end of three years, the company is doing quite alright and should be assimilated into our economy. To further encourage this, the startup visa expires five years after revenue is first generated, meaning you need to be successful and assimilate or you're going to lose everything. No one wants these successful people to lose everything. I feel this policy is tough but fair.
Some people might equate this to the Startup Act (version 3.0) that was introduced earlier in 2015.29 Indeed, the bill is a good idea and I can support the concept of it, but the section on visas isn't strong enough in my opinion. If you are going to come to this country as a skilled worker (STEM or not), I want to be sure you're doing everything you can to be successful. The visa requirements outlined in the Startup Act lack conditions for success and failure. By having such conditions, we follow the market needs with supply and demand. If the economy is booming and they succeed, great. If the economy tanks, sorry but at least you got an opportunity and learned from the experience.
Current non-immigrant Americans are free to start a company anytime they want. Startup visa holders face all the challenges of US citizens in starting a company. They need to form legally, create by-laws (if necessary), find an operating location, observe all state/local government requirements, and more. If everyday Americans don't want to start a business, I'll give the opportunity to anyone else that does. Though in fairness, I do believe that removing hurdles to Americans, especially in the tech sector with intellectual property reform, will result in many more new native entrepreneurial outlets.
Startup visas in combination with existing visas will both widen the visas pool and provide "competition" for skilled workers under the H-1B program. It will also force H-1B abusers to seriously consider hiring local talent as the risk of losing a H-1B participant increases. And the economic growth via entrepreneurship will bring in additional revenues at a pretty good ROI. But what about other immigrants?
Current family visa backlogs need to be cleared out. I also want to see analysis done on the systems in use to track all these family members and visa holders. My guess, knowing government, is that the systems are in dire need of updating for ease of use and future flexibility.30 Technological advances will also allow for better tracking and prevention of "chain inviting" family members. One of the fears people have is that immigrants will invite family who will invite more family and more family until they invite everyone and their step-brother's mother to America. Tracking of invitees means that those who get visas via a family invite are barred from inviting anyone themselves. Current family visa limits would be raised to 650,000 (minimum 400,000) after the technology is in place to handle the requests and handle immigrant chaining concerns.
Aside from that, current illegals and all future immigrants need a path to citizenship.
Path to Citizenship
In an ideal world, immigrants come, work, start a family, and become integrated into the American Dream. Anyone immigrating without a criminal record needs to be offered this path. What I propose is a fully trackable, start-to-finish, citizenship program that will allow such a reality. At the same time, illegals wishing to violate their visas while not on this path absolutely will face deportation. You're here in America to work, study, vacation, or live within the confines of the law. We want to help, but you must be willing to work for it.
Thankfully, 21st century technology alleviates some of the pain. If developed properly with an open source model that can integrate with any/all agencies over the next 5-10 years, technology can fully track who is here, where they are, what job they have, their family, their kids, how long everyone has been here, and more. No, this isn't a Big Brother concern because all the information is information that already exists for every American alive today. I am acutely aware of privacy issues in this country; no one wants to ensure privacy rights are adhered to more than I do. With these new systems I'm referring to, the goal is to simply make the data more query friendly, so to speak. This system would be like an "E-Verify NEXT" because the current E-Verify system, apparently, has some issues.31
It begins with the IRS and taxes. Everyone employee possesses a social security number or an ITIN. For adult immigrants (even illegals), the ITIN is a must. If you truly want to be an American, you must get a ITIN. Do not go for an "under the table" arrangement out of fear of deportation. Such illegal arrangements will result in deportation. ITIN's, on the other hand, are the numbers that will give you protection through the long process towards citizenship.
Once a ITIN is obtained and you begin paying taxes, your "path" can begin. A website will exist that allows you to register yourself on this path using the ITIN as a legitimizing factor. Employers hiring anyone under an ITIN will also be responsible for logging the hire in to the website via an employer portal that legitimizes the claim through something like employer tax ID or other identification information that can prove the company is legit and not some shell corporation being used to skirt the law and immigrantion. Once the immigrant- illegal or not- gets into the system, protections kick in against abusive practices. Illegals will gain the same rights as legals/citizens to prevent wage garnishing, unsafe labor requirements, etc. They would also receive deportation protection so long as they remain a contributing member of society of good moral character.
This means absolutely no criminal offense. Guilt of a criminal offense results in deportation without eligibility of return. Guilt of a civil offense could result in the same if the offense is egregious enough. Outside of that, an ITIN holder on this path must prove a steady income stream. This is where mandatory check-ins via the web system come into being. Nothing too intensive as the systems handling all this will know how long the person has been on the job, what their income is, etc via their income inputs by their employer. System check-ins are for providing current residency verification, job verification, family member verification, etc. Falsifying data would be considered a federal offense resulting in deportation.
Children of illegal immigrants are currently considered citizens of the United States if they are born on American soil. No doubt this might lead to immigrants coming here simply to give birth, but I'm willing to bet that is an extremely rare circumstance. For children born outside the US to (now) illegal immigrants, I would apply standards set in the DREAM Act- an Act I'm quite fond of. If the kids go to school, get an education, and are upstanding members of society, that's a good start.
This new path with be an addendum to that. Education is important and an understanding of America's philosophy is equally important. Part of the path for children and adult immigrants would be online study tools and tests, including English as a second language (ESL) requirements. Like it or not, English is the primary language spoken in America and everyone living and working here should have a basic grasp of it. You don't need to understand complex tomes like Hobbes' Leviathan or Joyce's Finnegans Wake but you do need to be able to read and converse. Job safety depends on it, especially when heavy machinery is involved. Thus ESL curricula along with quarterly quizzes on various pieces of American history will be mandatory with the employment/family updates. Some might find such mandatory action easy. Kids will learn it in school. It could be a 15 minute formality four times a year. But it's important to work through. This is a path to citizenship after all. You have to know some things about the country you're looking to dedicate your life to.
For kids and adults, I would see developed new voice recognition applications to aid in the ESL studies. Siri and Cortana are pretty good at voice recognition and I would see similar technology be of use for immigrants on this path. Siri is a DARPA offshoot after all.31 Might as well put those government dollars to use integrating those that wish to be integrated and can provide value to society. Smartphones have become ubiquitous enough to allow for such programs to exist. Even without a stupidly expensive phone plan, using free wifi at a coffee shop or library would work. Libraries could also dedicate computer stations and time to helping people work through these new program requirements.
So after the immigrant gets a job, gets an ITIN, starts paying taxes, and is on the program towards American integration, the next piece of the puzzle is keeping them that way. This path is only as good as the effort put in. Should they be fired or quit, there will be a time limit on getting another job before deportation problems arise. I was thinking 45 days to start, but am open to more or less. There also needs to be restrictions to prevent someone from getting a job, quitting the next day, and waiting 44 days before repeating the process. Those individuals do not contribute to society. Thankfully, with this program, that will all be tracked and those individuals can be punished accordingly.
After a timeframe of eight years for adults (ie, those age 18+), if they have been keeping steady work, fulfilled the program requirements, and have been an upstanding member of society, they would be allowed to file for citizenship. This leads into the tests for citizenship that we current have for legal immigrants. For children, citizenship eligibility will be possible after graduating high school or after eight years, whichever timeframe is longer. In other words, if you are five when you came to America, your parent registered you in the system, and you've kept up with education while being an upstanding member of society (well, as good as kids can be), then you will be eligible upon completion of high school. If you were 13 when you came here, you won't be eligible until you are 21. This ensures kids are properly educated and behaved while also keeping the overall rules intact.
These plans are not perfect. I'm content with them, but many details are required, more details than I, alone, can keep track of, details that may conflict with proposals I'm putting forward. Our nation's immigration policy makes complicated look easy due to how multifaceted the problem is. Foreign policy changes are a must, that much is true. Providing visas for skilled workers- especially STEM capable folks- will help our economy as well. However, such visas shouldn't take away jobs from US citizens like existing H-1B visas are perceived to do. I feel a balance exists through a startup visa program, a program which would bring integrity back to H-1B corruption while boosting potential job creation. An overhaul of the technological infrastructure would also help clear visa backlogs, making room for visa increases in the coming years. And finally, a real path to citizenship based on economic contribution and constant education can help bring those who may be illegal into the fold as contributing Americans. A path that not only adheres to our nation's philosophy and role as a beacon of hope, but also as a protector of those in need by forcing employers taking advantage of cheap illegal labor to fix their policy or face consequences.
But it's not perfect. People will still overstay visas and seek to avoid any work requirements. Governments will still have problems, driving foreigners here; you can't be the greatest nation on Earth and not expect people wanting to join up. Visa abuses will still occur. Employers will still skirt laws, probably with the ITIN's. There is potential for startup visas to be abused by having shell companies or drug cartels use them as laundering operations. They can already do that, but we have to be honest about possibilities. There is also potential for foreigners to take jobs away from Americans, but with the changes I've outlined above, it should only happen if the employer really wants the foreign worker. No other difference should exist between a foreigner and an American because of labor protections and skill-levels. More labor competition could drive down wages, but we already see that the number of American workers is at an all time highs as are the number of job openings. The entire global workforce thus competes for the same jobs. And if Americans don't want them and don't want to start their own business, I'm willing to foster those with that passion. Anyone with the American Dream has the potential to benefit our society.
Could this go further? Yes, it could go far left with complete amnesty coupled with open borders. It could also go far right by building walls and spending billions hunting down illegals for deportation. I feel this is a decent middle ground. Existing laws could be enforced, economic contribution (still without access to government programs) shows good faith in wanting to be American, kids getting educated, mandatory programs for integration, and a real path to citizenship keeps people moving, constantly striving towards that end goal. It is hard work with many potential pitfalls along the way, more than native born citizens face. But that's the challenge when you immigrate. That's the risk. Bringing your dream into reality is not easy. America endured revolution and civil war to keep this dream alive, a dream built on potential for every human being on the planet. Remember that when you consider immigration reform tradeoffs.
(1) See Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2012 by the DHS. Also As Growth Stalls, Unauthorized Immigrant Population Becomes More Settled from the Pew Research Center. And Democratizing Data about Unauthorized Residents in the United States: Estimates and Public-Use Data, 2010 to 2013 from the Center for Migration Studies.
(2) See Budget-in-Brief - Fiscal Year 2015 by the DHS.
(3) See 2004 Budget in Brief by the DHS.
(4) See Enacted Border Patrol Budget by Fiscal Year from the CBP.
(5) Doing any kind of accurate cost analysis on a large, tough, almost castle-like wall across the 1,900+ miles of the southern border with Mexico is really impossible. You have to factor in geography, weather, transportation, labor, security, repairs, and more. In looking up costs online, you'll find a wide array of numbers depending on the source and year- $49 billion in 2007, $3.9 million per mile estimate in 2013 for a total of $7.4 billion if we use pedestrian fences, another estimate of $22.4 billion from 2013, or $8 billion for fences in 2005.
(6) See The Costs of Mass Deportation by the Center for American Progress which estimated $285 billion. The American Action Forum estimates costs in the $400-600 billion over 20 years. No matter who you believe, think about the amount of money required to find all the illegal immigrants, verify they are in fact illegal, and physically remove them to their home country. Then think about the time and money spent trying to catch regular criminals. And finally, consider the psychological cost to those people and other Americans.
(7) See U.S. Deportation Outcomes by Charge by TRAC Immigration.
(8) See Modes of Entry for the Unauthorized Migrant Population by the Pew Research Center. However, note the 40% statistic is from 2006. We really need data to update it.
(9) See EFFECTS OF UNAUTHORIZED IMMIGRATION ON THE ACTUARIAL STATUS OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY TRUST FUNDS from the Social Security Administration. Also consider this report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy regarding undocumented workers tax contributions to state and local economies.
(11) See General ITIN Information from the IRS. They flat out say ITIN's are issued regardless of immigration status.
(12) See Lipman, Francine J., Taxing Undocumented Immigrants: Separate, Unequal and Without Representation. Tax Lawyer, Spring 2006; Harvard Latino Law Review, Spring 2006; Chapman University Law Research Paper No. 06-20. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=881584
(13) See Migrant Influx Prompts Macedonia, Britain and France to Increase Security. Macedonia declared a state of emergency because of the huge number of refugees. See also Italy declares state of emergency over influx of 5,000 Tunisian immigrants from 2011, Italy declares state of emergency over Roma immigrants from 2008, Interior Minister declares “state emergency” during visit to Melilla from 2014 in Spain, and Italy declares migrant emergency from 2002 as several examples.
(14) Mexico's problems are quite extensive. See Mexico’s Peso Falls to Record Low Against Dollar, Mexican president's ratings slump as outrage grows over missing student teachers, Mexican President Involved in New Corruption Scandal, Activist who helped search for Mexico's 43 missing students found slain, Mexico’s PRI: Repeating History or Looking Forward?, and more.
(25) See The Cost of Getting a Green Card.
(27) I should also note that employers who lose a H-1B worker to a startup visa would not retain the visa for use on another employee. They would be SOL until the next round of H-1B visa approvals came around.
(28) One worry is that startup visa holders would move into a EB visa with less stringent requirements. Being ineligible for other visas while in the startup visa program circumvents that.
(30) Booz Allen Hamilton was involved in some of this. See IMMIGRATION SERVICES MODERNIZATION BPA.
(31) See 5 problems with E-Verify.