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Blacks underrepresented in immigration debate

By Julianne Malveaux

The Senate’s Gang of Eight have put together an 844-page monstrosity known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, legislation of which President Obama says he “basically approves.” The crafters of this essentially unreadable bill was put together by senators Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; Michael Bennett, D-Colo.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.;  Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C.

On its surface, the bill provides much-needed relief to many of the 11 millionJulianne Malveaux undocumented people who live in our country. The challenge is that it disadvantages some immigrants, especially African and Caribbean immigrants, while helping others.

Further, the senators crafting the bill put goodies into the bill that only serve to advantage themselves or their states. Senator Graham wants more visas for the meat-packing industry.  Senator Schumer provided special provisions for Irish people with a high school diploma, Senator Rubio, the much touted possible presidential candidate in 2016, asked for more visas for the cruise ship industry and Senator Bennett wants more visas for workers in ski resorts.

Meanwhile, the legislation would eliminate the Diversity Visa Program, which allows a visa lottery for countries with  low levels (less than 50,000 people) of immigration to the United States. Many African immigrants come here through this program; African immigrants are 36 percent of those receiving diversity visas (Ghana and Nigeria each had 6,000 immigrants through this program in 2011). Thus, while Senator Schumer pushes for special provisions for Irish immigrants, there is no one on the Senate side pushing for special provisions for African and Caribbean immigrants.

Instead of the Diversity Visa Program, Senate Bill 744 creates between 120,000 to 200,000 visas on a “merit-based” system, which gives highest priority to those who have future employment opportunities. Because employers do not seek out African and Caribbean immigrants for employment (as they seek out Indian and Chinese immigrants to employ), the merit-based point system is likely to provide fewer opportunities for those from Africa and the Caribbean. Senator Schumer’s special provision for the Irish carries no stipulation that these people be employed, essentially granting them a pass from the merit-based point system.

Many high-tech companies use the H-1B visa program on the grounds that there is a shortage of skilled workers in the United States. There is evidence that this claim is specious and that employers prefer foreign workers who they can pay less and control more.  The new legislation will prevent employers from holding workers hostage because their continuing employment is necessary in order to keep their visa.

The new legislation gives H-1B visa holders 60 days to find a new job. But why do we have H-1B visas at all? With unemployment over 7 percent and Black unemployment over 13 percent, surely there are unemployed people who could work effectively in technology companies. Howard University economist Bill Sprigs has written that there are proportionately more African American students majoring in computer science than white. Many of these graduates cannot find jobs.  Meanwhile, African and Caribbean immigrants get just a small percentage of H-1B visas.

The Immigration Modernization bill will spend $4.5 billion in an attempt to secure the southern border, which will “secure” our country from Mexican immigrants, but ignores the northern border, which makes our country more open to Canadian immigration. Of course, Canadian immigrants are more likely to be white and thus less feared than Mexican immigrants.  The Congressional Black Caucus is one of many groups to suggest this $4.5 billion could be more effectively spent, perhaps, on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education.

The immigration bill is by no means final. The House of Representatives still has to vote on it. Many of them will add amendments and exceptions to take care of their “pet” causes.  Meanwhile, President Obama has been urging Democrats to accept the immigration bill as it is because too many amendments may jeopardize the bill. For example, Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., would like to propose an amendment that would allow gay Americans to sponsor their partners for green cards. The Judiciary Committee is likely to pass this amendment, but the whole Senate might not.

President Obama has had a bad year, so far. He didn’t get his way on gun control, and he’s been kicked around by an obstructionist House of Representatives. He needs immigration reform to fulfill promises he made to the Latino community during his campaign. But this legislation contains lots of provisions that don’t pass the smell test. It makes it more difficult for African and Caribbean immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

The African American community must take a closer look at this legislation. If Senator Schumer can give 10,000 Irish immigrants the open door, how many Africans and Caribbeans will he make exceptions for?  At the very minimum, Congress should restore the Diversity Visa Program. Exactly who will have more economic opportunity? And is immigration really being modernized when it locks foreign-born Black people out of the process?

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer.


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