The immigration debate in America has recently switched direction by about 175 degrees. Only five years ago, the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (the so-called Jordan Commission) proposed to cut legal immigration by at least a third and eliminate illegal immigration through new workplace enforcement measures. The commission's recommendations were based both on critiques of the 1986 and 1990 immigration reform laws and on a growing sentiment that as America entered the twenty-first century immigration should be reduced from its record levels. This sentiment was reflected in annual Gallup polls, votes on measures such as California's Proposition 187, and studies showing new immigrants doing less well today than in previous times. It was also shown in increasing hostility toward new arrivals in immigrant-heavy states such as California, Arizona, and Florida -- hostility that showed signs of spreading to other parts of the country.
Yet only five years later, immigration into the United States is at its highest absolute levels in history: more than 1.1 million annually, some 400,000 higher than the previous high-water mark of around 700,000 annually during the 1900-1920 "Great Migration" (though as a percentage of population, today's rate of immigration, 0.4 percent, is actually lower than that at the turn of the century, 0.7 percent). Despite these high numbers, Congress' interest has faded. Immigration policy today is driven by businesses that need more workers -- skilled and unskilled, legal and illegal. Somehow, the process has gotten out of control.
With U.S. unemployment at an uncommonly low four percent, economic growth around five percent per year, and personal income and consumption at their highest rates in history, Congress has forgotten the Jordan Commission's recommendations. During the annual debate on H1-B visas (temporary permits for skilled workers) two years ago, Silicon Valley executives trooped before Congress, warning of a Y2K computer disaster unless the number of H1-B visas issued each year was increased. It was doubled. This year, Silicon Valley has new arguments for raising the H1-B visa ceiling to 200,000 annually,