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Where Is ‘The Back of The Line’?

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Republican presidential hopefuls Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney agreed on at least one thing at the California debate Wednesday night: the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States need to go to the "back of the line" if they want to become American citizens.

Romney said immigrants with children who have lived in the United States for about five years should get until the end of the school year before leaving, but after that "these individuals are free to get in line with everyone else."

The GOP candidates have largely appealed to their base with this language throughout the campaign, insisting that all 12 million immigrants must go. In fact, one of the key reasons that Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) campaign ran into rough ground last spring and summer was his support of President George W. Bush’s immigration reform proposals, which included talk of guest workers and a path to U.S. citizenship for some of those already here. McCain was on the record with a relatively centrist position, for he had sponsored an immigration reform bill with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) that called for paying back taxes and a fine, completing a six-year temporary worker program, passing background checks and going to the back of the line.

Democratic presidential candidates are not so different in their rhetoric. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has said her plans for reform would require applicants for legalization — whether guest workers, permanent residents or even those in temporary protective status — to pay back taxes and go to the back of the line. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) would have them pay an unspecified "serious" or "substantial" fine and go to the same place.

But what does going to the back of the line actually mean? For applicants from countries that send many immigrants to the U.S., it means joining a long waiting list that will not become current for the indefinite future. For subsequent visa seekers, it means finding a large block of applicants added to the existing backlog in front of them, and so being relegated to Never-Never Land.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) processes visa applications according to labor and family categories and also by national quotas. For people in countries with many America-bound migrants—Mexico, Philippines, India, and China— the annual quotas are always filled and the excess is backlogged for processing in later years. USCIS keeps track of filing dates and assigns priority dates to applicants, who wait in line to be notified that their priority dates have come up for processing.

A legalization program would likely involve setting a window of opportunity—perhaps for one year—for filing, and, as applications are processed, moving them to the back of the line.

The case of Mexico

Mexico generates more entrants, with or without visas, than any other country. Certain brain-drain visa categories are available to Mexican nationals immediately: “Priority Workers” and “Members of the Professions Holding Advanced Degrees or Persons of Exceptional Ability.”

However, one other category of special interest here—“Skilled Workers, Professionals, and Other Workers”—is over-subscribed. Wayne A. Cornelius, Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, in 2006:

Currently, only 140,000 employment-based visas are available to people of all nationalities each year. And of those, only 5,000-10,000 go to low-skilled workers. Last year, only 3,200 employment-based visas were issued to Mexicans, in a year when more than 400,000 Mexicans were added to the U.S. work force through illegal immigration.

As of early January 2008, the related priority dates for Mexico went backto 2001.

That does not mean that applications filed today will be processed seven years from now; rather, that it will take at least that long to get to them. Sen. Clinton, in reference to legalization applicants, mentions a wait of “10, 12, 15 years.”

Undocumented aliens in the U.S. are estimated at around 12 million, more than half of whom would be Mexicans. (The Department of Homeland Security estimate for 2006 was 6.6 million out of 11.6. million total.)

Assuming arbitrarily that only 3 million Mexicans already in the US are processed for legalization, that many would be placed at the end of the line, adding to existing backlogs and taking up space in front of later applicants. And that’s just Mexicans, not counting many more Central and South Americans, Asians, Africans, and Europeans already here.

Processing time

Beyond basic data such as name, address, family members, and date of entry, the applications would require evidence of a lack of a criminal record, and most likely a narrative of work places and the income derived from each, with some evidence of the latter. But workers frequently paid in cash and under the table for short-term contracts are not likely to have kept careful records over the years.

Add the language complications, and the inevitable scam artists who offer to help immigrants but abandon them after taking their money, and further potential layers of complications and delays become evident.

It could take, say, 22 years, extending to 2030, to process the existing backlog plus the additional group—if the system started today. But no system will be in place unless Congress approves it, administrative agencies work out procedures that are published for public comment and then revised, and appropriate personnel are assigned and trained. Additional workers would be needed, along with office space and furniture and networked computers, and these don’t materialize magically. In the meantime, scads of new applications under the current system will have arrived.

Consider this from a USCIS advisory at the end of the last fiscal year:

USCIS has received a significant increase in the number of applications filed. In July and August [2007], nearly 2.5 million applications and petitions of all types were received. This compares to 1.2 million applications and petitions received in the same time period last year [2006]. This fiscal year, we received 1.4 million applications for naturalization; nearly double the volume we received the year before. The agency is working to improve processes and focus increased resources, including hiring approximately 1,500 new employees, to address this workload.

(See more details from recent Congressional testimony here.)

The harried workers at USCIS can hardly look forward to the pig-in-the-python effect of millions of new and basically simultaneous applications resulting from a legalization program.

Back taxes

USCIS specialists are not normally tasked with calculating back taxes. They would need help from the IRS, implying the development of a new automated interface (write specs and put out for bids; award contract; develop and test; hire and train workers).

Without special rules, back taxes cannot be computed by adding up the income from back years and processing the total through the current year’s rules. The tax code changes from one year to the next, while families grow or shrink: former dependents become independent, die, or leave the country; people marry or divorce. Computing back taxes thus becomes a calculus of delta y over delta x, tracking changing tax rates, exceptions, and exemptions. How, exactly, would back taxes be computed? Would a typical year-to-year accounting be required, or would Congress specify simplified tax schedules?

Meanwhile, back home

At the end of the rainbow, the line of pre-existing applicants plus the newcomers, millions of people long, would extend into the future for a time that is hard to estimate, but that could be a couple of decades from now. Foreign residents seeking visas thereafter would have to reconsider their life plans: a young worker of today filing a few years from now might be nearing retirement age by the time his priority date came around.

For sending nations like Mexico and El Salvador, emigration to the U.S. has been for years an escape valve. Where further emigration ceased to be a practical option, the demand for new jobs and higher incomes at home would grow very quickly, including in the neighbors close by who are now bound by treaty (NAFTA/CAFTA-DR) to the US economy: Mexico, the Central American countries, and the Dominican Republic.

This is the end point if all goes well. The estimates above assumed the processing of 3 million Mexicans, and maybe three million more from other countries. What if the total turns out to be closer to 10 million?

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