Saturday essay: It will cost to restrict immigration


Now that most of the rubble and remains have been removed from New York City, the Pentagon, and pastoral Pennsylvania, a number of challenges remain.

What do we do to protect Americans' safety and freedoms? How do we make the Immigration and Naturalization Service more effective? How do we find a balance between secure borders and our open, hospitable culture?

There is no doubt the INS needs to be restructured, and Congress is weighing in. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, it was widely reported that most, if not all, of the terrorist hijackers entered the United States legally, using temporary “non-immigrant” visas. As a result, the agency has increased its scrutiny of non-immigrants arriving in our country to verify the stated purpose of the visit and to check for prior immigration violations.

On May 14, President Bush signed the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act aimed at increasing border security, appropriate training for our nation's gatekeepers, timely intelligence about potential threats, and cooperation with Canada and Mexico to prevent terrorists from setting foot on our continent.

Like the recently passed House INS reorganization bill, the new bipartisan Senate bill, “Immigration Reform, Accountability, and Security Enhancement Act of 2002,” would dismantle the INS and separate the service and enforcement functions into two distinct bureaus.

The Senate bill would provide for a greater degree of coordination between the two entities by placing at the new agency's helm a director with the authority to develop and administer immigration policy for the entire agency. By contrast, the House bill places the real authority in each of the two competing bureaus, creating a potential for disparate policies, conflicting legal interpretations, and a lack of accountability.

It is evident that sustained commitment over the long term will allow us to see real institutional improvements. The INS did not become ineffective overnight, and no one bill will magically cure it.

Our love-hate relationship with immigration (and immigrants) is cyclical, and we seem to be entering a more cautious, negative cycle. However, the easy answers - although politically appealing to some - may have dire consequences. Organizational changes will not suffice if they are not accompanied by a major overhaul of our attitude toward immigrants.

Much of the proposed legislation deals with the “illegal” immigrant problem. The underpinning of much of this legislation is not based on security concerns but rather the argument that foreigners drain government's resources - they don't pay taxes. Not true.

Recent statistics show that immigrants paid $133 billion in 1998 federal, state, and local taxes. In 1998, immigrant-owned businesses paid an additional $100 billion in taxes. In fact, since 1988, immigrants have contributed an estimated $500 billion to Social Security. It's projected that immigrants will contribute nearly $2 trillion to our nation's retirement system between 1988 and 2072.

Another common misperception is that foreign workers are America's “cheap labor.” Again, not true. In order to hire a foreigner, an employer must incur much higher costs than would be the case with a native candidate. A foreign employee on a valid visa must be paid no less than his or her American counterpart.

The faulty logic is that terrorists dutifully obey INS regulations. They don't. The proposed rule will likely cause confusion and economic hardship for those the INS does not intend to harm.

Parents or grandparents from Asia who wish to spend several months with a new baby; relatives from India who have saved money to purchase non-refundable round-trip tickets; friends from Costa Rica wishing to spend the summer traveling, or thousands of Canadians spending winter in Florida and Arizona, are the types of activities that will be curtailed. Even though foreign visitors could file for extensions of stay, they couldn't depend on an extension being granted.

The government has also proposed regulations to limit the number of foreign students and to track them during their time in the U.S. But if we admit fewer foreign students, we should be prepared for increasing economic consequences.

With foreigners - about 500,000 enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities in 2001 - typically paying three times as much in tuition as their American peers, higher education certainly appreciates both the cultural advantages and the financial contributions.

Foreign students finance the graduate programs of every major university and their presence ensures the highest caliber of faculty levels in all science, technology, and mathematics disciplines.

So what needs to be done to maintain the openness of the American culture while ensuring safety? Profound agency reforms and improvements in the international admissions system should begin the process. When that happens, the INS will be able to screen potential threats to our security much more effectively - while our schools, colleges, and companies will remain the oases of true multiculturalism.

Don Slowik is an immigration and labor attorney in Columbus.