Legal Immigration? Anyone?


One of the false pieties uttered by anti-immigration politicians is that they love immigrants. If that were true, Congress would not be having so much trouble passing a simple law to smooth out a serious kink in the legal immigration pipeline.

Every year Congress authorizes a certain number of permanent-resident visas, or green cards, for immigrants to come to work in the United States or to rejoin their families. And every year bureaucratic delays prevent a certain portion of those visas from being claimed.

The result? Every year thousands of potential green cards vanish, like unused cellphone minutes. The huge backlogs in legal immigration, which span years or even decades for applicants from some countries, continue to fester. The myth of Ellis Island becomes more mythical.

Teachers, nurses, engineers, researchers and other aspiring immigrants who follow the rules, file their paperwork, pay their fees and wait � and wait � get the chilly message that they are not wanted. Some of them feel great pressure to go illegally around the immigration system, instead of through it, as their wait to rejoin their loved ones becomes intolerable.

A House bill that could recapture an estimated 550,000 lost visas, sponsored by Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, has been moving slowly through the committee process despite the best efforts of members like Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, to sabotage it with ridiculously restrictive amendments. One would have granted green cards only to people younger than 40 with college degrees. Another would have eliminated an entire category of family visas, for siblings of citizens.

In the Senate, Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, is insisting that a visa-recapturing amendment be added to a bill reauthorizing E-Verify, the federal database program to prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants. For this, he has endured an onslaught of criticism from nativist groups and colleagues, like Jeff Sessions of Alabama. They all have been raising an outcry about a coming flood of new foreigners.

That’s a false alarm. Congress has already authorized these green cards, and many would go to highly skilled workers who have already lived here for years on temporary visas. The bill is as much about keeping workers as gaining them.

It seems unlikely that a visa-recapture bill would make it through this year. But don’t blame Congress’s focus on the economic mess for that. Recapturing visas is a modest fix that should have been made a long time ago. The country needs to build a smoother path to legal entry and citizenship. The blame for its failure to do that lies squarely with the hard-liners who rage against illegal immigrants, but are strangely uninterested in helping people who “play by the rules� and “wait in line.�

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