Capitol Hill

Fixing a failing immigration system

2000 was a good year for proponents of immigration reform. The elections of President George W. Bush and his Mexican counterpart Vicente Fox signaled a new chapter in U.S.-Mexico relations. The Bush administration initially saw great benefit to establishing a guest worker program for the agricultural sector and flirted with the idea of granting amnesty to millions of Mexicans unlawfully residing in the United States. In August 2001, the countries reached a preliminary agreement addressing these issues.

But the events of Sept. 11 rocked the political landscape, relegating the Bush administration's initial plans to craft a more open relationship with Latin America to the back burner. As concerns about homeland security and counterterrorism justifiably leapt to the top of the national agenda, comprehensive immigration reform became one of the first casualties. Opponents of immigration reform used Sept. 11 to assert that immigration and security are mutually exclusive goals, and congressional opponents of immigration gained stronger visibility.

After two years of inactivity on the topic, Congress suddenly has embraced immigration reform with renewed vigor. It's not difficult to see why congressional interest has returned. There currently are an estimated 8 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States, including 5 million to 6 million who are believed to have arrived in the 1990s but about whom authorities know little.

In July, Reps. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced the Border Security and Immigration Improvement Act (HR 2899), which aims to address projected labor shortages by establishing two new visa categories—one for foreign workers living outside the United States and the other for undocumented foreign workers living in the United States.