Senate CIR Bill: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?

Though the battle now moves to the House of Representatives, where prospects for passage of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) are clouded – at best – we should savor our victories where we can. On June 27, 2013, the Senate finally pulled together to pass an amended version of the CIR bill on which its Gang of Eight labored for so long. The vote tally alone was impressive, just in terms of sheer numbers – 68 to 32 in favor of CIR – but even more so for what it represented: a respite from the partisan rancor that has made such broad bipartisan consensus increasingly rare, even in the Senate.

There is much to cheer about in the Senate’s version of CIR. Among other things, it would raise the annual cap on H1B visas to 115,000, initially, and provide up to 180,000 H1B visas in future years, a substantial increase over the current cap of 65,000. This would be a boon to U.S. industry, especially in the technology sector, where competition for the world’s best and brightest is increasingly stiff.

Nonetheless, it’s a bittersweet victory. Why? Partly because immigration hardliners could derail CIR in the House of Representatives, but also because of what it took to pass the bill. To overcome opposition on the GOP’s right flank, the Senate was compelled to add around $40 billion to fund additional border security measures, including 20,000 more Border Patrol agents and 700 miles of fencing along the Mexican border. [See Progress on an Immigration Overhaul in 5 Areas, by Alicia Parlapiano and Julia Preston, New York Times, 27.Jun.2013.]

This, despite a long-term decline in illegal immigration, partly due to the economic downturn, but also no doubt driven by the massive increase in border-security spending that began under President George W. Bush, which has exploded to record levels during President Obama’s administration. [See Illegal Immigration Hits New Low: One Less Hurdle for CIR?, MurthyBlog, 29.Sep.2013.]

It’s hard to avoid the obvious question: Having ramped up border-security spending to unprecedented levels in recent years, was this really necessary? The most pragmatic answer is yes, but only as a political expedient, not because the facts on the ground – the ground along the border – required it. The Senate’s border-security deal provides political cover for GOP senators along with a generous helping of pork-barrel funding for southwestern states: the juicy prospect of thousands of new government jobs and years of lucrative construction contracts to build and maintain the border fence.

At a time when the federal budget is tight to the point of implosion, it’s hard to say where the money will come from to pay for all of this. The Senate would have been well advised to consider the opportunity cost of spending $40 billion on a border problem that’s already well under control. Could we not have used this money more effectively elsewhere – for instance, to reduce the backlog of existing immigration cases? Perhaps so, but that might have risked getting no CIR at all – an opportunity cost most senators apparently were not willing to bear.

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