Think tank advises Obama on immigration
By Tyche Hendricks
The San Francisco Chronicle, February 11, 2009
As if the Obama administration didn't have enough on its plate with a recession, bank troubles and any number of foreign policy crises, a non-partisan immigration think tank has offered the new president a roadmap to mend the country's dysfunctional immigration bureaucracy.
The report reflects insider knowledge, including the views of past immigration czars under both Republican and Democratic presidents, and spells out three dozen fixes the administration can make without waiting for new laws to pass.
The decision not to recommend legislation reflects the fact that major immigration reform bills were unsuccessful in the past two sessions of Congress. Analysts – including the report's authors at the Migration Policy Institute – are not holding their breath for a new bill this year.
'It's about a new administration having authority in the executive branch to make changes,' said co-author Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at institute. 'Once you get involved with Congress, it takes longer.'
Among the recommendations for reforming the three immigration agencies – Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Citizenship and Immigration Services – which fall under the Department of Homeland Security:
* Suspend new border fence projects until the current fencing is assessed.
* Focus enforcement on criminal operations that underlie large-scale illegal immigration.
* Expand and improve an electronic employer verification system.
* Change the funding for citizenship and immigration services to break the recurring cycle of backlogs.
* Create a senior staff position in the Department of Homeland Security who oversees and coordinates the immigration agencies.
The philosophy underlying the report is that the United States should open the 'front door' wider for more legal immigration but simultaneously close the 'back door' with robust enforcement to deter undocumented immigration.
Some immigrant advocates said the institute's proposals would merely continue immigration policies they believe have led to discrimination, such as a requirement that businesses check the work eligibility of their employees.
'Employer sanctions have given employers power and a tool over workers and they use it to undermine union organizing,' said Arnoldo Garcia, program director of the National Network of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, based in Oakland. 'There has to be a real change in how the Department of Homeland Security protects our civil liberties.'
Conservative analyst Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, said he hoped the Obama administration would continue the approach developed by Bush.
'I'd like him to continue the existing policy,' said Hanson. 'You have to close the border without sounding xenophobic and you've got to help Mexico do free trade and reform to create an economy people want to stay in.'
The immigration agencies – which were created in a government restructuring six years ago – are still 'a work in progress,' and improving their effectiveness could help prepare for future reforms, including a possible legalization program for millions of unauthorized immigrants, the reports authors said.
'One of the most dysfunctional things is the insufficiency of the data available to draw any conclusions on how effective they've been,' said Meissner, who started examining the agencies last summer. 'There's a real lack of transparency in making information available.'
One adviser to the Obama administration on immigration issues, former Clinton administration staffer Maria Echaveste, applauded the Migration Policy Institute for its report, especially the pragmatic focus on reforms that don't require Congressional approval.
'Here is a long list of administrative actions that can be taken to improve performance on the mission that's important at Homeland Security with respect to illegal immigration but also services for legal immigrants,' said Echaveste, who teaches immigration law and policy at the UC Berkeley School of Law. 'What's distressing about this very-thorough analysis is that people have tried over the last three or four years to communicate suggestions such as this and it fell on deaf ears.'
Meissner said she supported a comprehensive immigration bill but wasn't holding her breath for one. Instead, she hoped to catch the ear of Obama's new secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano.
'She's aware of this report and of the work we've been doing,' said Meissner. 'I'm confident we'll have a dialog.'
EDITOR'S NOTE: The MPI report is available online at: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/DHS_Feb09.pdf
CIS Director of National Security Policy Janice Kephart, recently posted thoughts regarding the MPI reports support of E-Verify, available online at: http://www.cis.org/node/1038