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Ponnuru: Buffett, Gates, Adelson don’t get immigration

First Published Jul 15 2014 08:04 am • Last Updated Jul 15 2014 08:05 am

A trio of billionaires — Sheldon Adelson, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates — say they want to "End the Immigration Impasse," to quote the headline of their recent New York Times op-ed article.

The article will do nothing to end that impasse, however, because the authors show no understanding of why it exists in the first place.

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For the authors, the way to end the impasse is for Congress to enact a comprehensive reform along the lines of the bill that the Senate passed last year. They imagine that everyone important in Washington agrees on the broad outlines of that bill and are merely squabbling over petty details. Everyone would resolve their differences in short order if they only remembered their larger purpose of serving the people.

None of this is true, of course. Some people in Washington oppose the bill, or don’t want to vote for it, and not just because of the details. Others mildly favor the bill but have reasons for letting the opponents get their way. Many suspect Speaker of the House John Boehner falls into this category.

Adelson et al say nothing to address either the opponents’ concerns about the bill — such as their worry that legalizing illegal immigrants will create an incentive for new illegal immigration — or Boehner’s concerns about angering the opponents.

Yet the authors inadvertently point a way forward. Their obvious interest is in increasing high-skilled immigration. They devote 10 sentences to that subject, and only two to the contentious issue of providing legal status for immigrants who entered or stayed in the country illegally. And they say nothing at all about increasing unskilled immigration levels, another feature of the Senate legislation.

On the issue that most concerns them, the authors are right to say there’s a broad bipartisan consensus. Although there are holdouts, most in Congress want to increase high-skilled immigration. And there is no reason Congress couldn’t do that without taking on every other immigration issue from a border fence to legalization. If Congress were voting on stand-alone legislation to boost high-skilled immigration, it would pass easily.

But the reason nothing like that has happened is that advocates of "comprehensive immigration reform" have insisted on holding the issue of high-skilled immigration hostage to the resolution of other issues, such as legalization and the creation of a guest-worker program.

That strategy makes a certain kind of sense. Advocates of comprehensive reform know that if a high-skill bill passes, the coalition for their broader proposal loses a lot of support from, well, the likes of Adelson, Buffett and Gates. (And by "support" I mean campaign contributions and ads.) But the strategy works only if the hostages go along, and never demand that stand-alone vote or even acknowledge the truth of their situation.

By focusing their words on their actual concerns, these corporate leaders have probably gone about as far as they can go in clarifying the situation. Think of their op-ed article as a muffled cry for help. If their attempts to advance a comprehensive bill continue to go nowhere, maybe they will someday try to make a break for it.


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