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Immigration Policies under a President Romney: Less Illegal, More Legal

A stark contrast to Obama's emphasis on accommodating illegal immigrants.

by
Jessica M. Vaughan

Bio

July 29, 2012 - 12:00 am

Last week, in response to inquiries from CNSNews.com, Mitt Romney offered some new insight into how he would administer immigration policy as president. His answers, delivered through a spokeswoman, clarified some of the statements that were delivered in a speech last month to Latino elected officials.

Romney has articulated a coherent approach to addressing the problem of illegal immigration, which imposes enormous economic, fiscal, and public safety burdens on American communities, even those far from the border zones. His humane, rule of law-based strategy stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s emphasis on accommodating illegal immigrants. 

His statements on legal immigration, however, while fairly bland and conventional, are also a little bit troubling. He would increase legal immigration and expand opportunities for U.S. employers to import workers from abroad, both skilled and unskilled. Romney apparently wanted to make sure that his strategy included some proposals that would be characterized as “pro-immigrant.”  Unfortunately, he seems to think that “pro-immigrant” necessarily means “more immigrants and more visas.”  

First let’s look at the border security and enforcement provisions.  The first clue that a Romney administration would be different from the status quo is his observation that currently, the border is far from secure: 

According to the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, Border Patrol lacks control of over half of our southwest border. And some estimates indicate that over 40% of illegal immigrants in America entered the country legally, but then overstayed their visas. 

Item One on his border strategy to-do list is “complete a high tech fence.”  Multi-layered fencing has enabled the Border Patrol to take back huge areas on our side, particularly around San Diego and El Paso, that were formerly a No Man’s Land open to illegal crossers, smugglers, and bandits. Just about anyone who has seen the fence would agree that it really does work, at least in areas where it can be patrolled.  The Obama administration, on the other hand, has chosen to surrender hundreds of square miles of territory in southern Arizona and other places to the Mexican cartels, leaving the Americans who live there to fend for themselves.

Romney also promises to implement an exit control system so that our homeland security agency finally will know which visitors have overstayed their visas.  Despite long-standing directives from Congress, plans for this system have languished for more than six years. Current DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has told Congress that she thinks exit controls are of “dubious” value, and is only grudgingly agreeing to put forward a plan this year in the face of bi-partisan nudging.  

Of course, simply knowing who has overstayed is not particularly helpful if the government is making no effort to deport the illegal aliens that come to their attention. Here too, Romney has displayed a refreshing commitment to enforcing the law. Asked by a Boston columnist if he would deport Uncle Omar, the president’s uncle — an illegal alien fugitive discovered last year after his arrest for drunk driving, who is still working and driving for a liquor store in Massachusetts – Romney replied with a decisive “yes.”

In fact, under Romney’s tenure as governor, Massachusetts was undeniably less attractive as a destination for illegal immigrants.  He squashed legislation from the liberal legislature that would have given driver’s licenses and in-state tuition to illegal aliens. In addition, he established a 287(g) task force to enable state troopers and corrections officers to assist with federal immigration law enforcement. These are the exact kind of local-federal partnership agreements that the Obama administration is in the process of dismantling across the country, starting with Arizona, where arguably, they are most needed. 

Romney’s strategy also includes a critical measure to address illegal employment — universal, mandatory use of E-Verify, the electronic system that enables employers to check the immigration status of new hires. As has been demonstrated in several states that have adopted some level of mandatory E-Verify, including South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island, when the job opportunities dry up, illegal workers will leave on their own, or “self-deport,” as Romney puts it. 

His public comments elaborating on how best to deal with the established illegal population, now numbering about 12 million, contradict the images of heartless round-ups and a 21st century Trail of Tears leading south that are painted by his critics.  Says Romney: “Under the ideal setting, in my view, you say to those who have just come in recently, we’re going to send you back home immediately, we’re not going to let you stay here. You just go back home. For those that have been here, let’s say, five years, and have kids in school, you allow kids to complete the school year, you allow people to make their arrangements, and allow them to return back home.”  This is a true version of “prosecutorial discretion” that members of Congress envisioned when they wrote our immigration laws, not the twisted Obama version that considers immigration enforcement to be so harshly punitive that it must only be applied to “serious criminals.”

As far as Romney’s plans for legal immigration, he told Latino leaders in his speech that he would “ask Congress” (as opposed to “abuse my executive authority and issue a decree”) to admit more highly skilled immigrants, improve guestworker programs, and adopt a gimmick promoted by the higher education industry to guarantee a green card to any foreigner who earns an advanced U.S. degree in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). In addition, he would work to change the law to admit unlimited numbers of family members of green card holders.

These proposals involve substantial changes to current law, and would have to pass Congress. It is likely that they would emerge in a different form than Romney describes — at least we should hope so.  To be sure, the admission of a higher proportion of immigrants with skills would be significantly more beneficial to taxpayers than the current system, which admits mostly family members of previous immigrants, who are much less educated, on average, than Americans.  But as it turns out, we already have visa categories for highly skilled workers; in fact, last year we admitted 44,000 of them, plus their spouses and children. We would take more if more applied, but they don’t. 

As for stapling the green card to the STEM diploma, this is little more than a marketing tool for U.S. universities to attract more foreign students into paying for degrees in fields that are already saturated. There is no shortage of STEM professionals in the United States; on the contrary, the census shows that there are 1.8 million American engineers who are unemployed or working in other professions.  Similarly, it is hard to imagine that, in a prolonged period of slow job growth and high unemployment, Congress will be eager to add further job competition for Americans and recent immigrants by increasing new family immigration, especially on the heels of Obama’s DREAM amnesty. 

Better for a Romney administration to pursue more genuine pro-immigrant reform choices, such as promoting naturalization, fighting fraud, and reducing processing backlogs. 

Jessica M. Vaughan is Director of Policy Studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, DC research institute.
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