An immigration debate is coming — again


There are indications from the White House that the Obama administration will push Congress later this year to reform the U.S. immigration system. New administration, new policies. If things do heat up, Whatcom County businesses should take an active interest in this debate, as immigration and cross-border commerce play a key role in the Fourth Corner’s economy. Whatcom County businesses have much to gain or lose, depending on how the debate turns out, and I am here to say — it could go in any of many directions, particularly in light of the recession.

Remember what happened the last time immigration reform was truly on the table? The issue got really really hot in the spring and summer of 2005, making front-page news as immigrant communities marched and protestors deluged their elected officials with phone calls. The delightful Minutemen came to town, to make sure the Canadian border was secure, and then we even had the House of Representatives conducting field hearings in City Hall. Eventually, the whole thing fell apart as the two-year presidential election season picked up steam, and the best Congress could subsequently do was pass a law for a rather expensive fence on the southern border.

The need for immigration reform still remains. Anyone close to the issue recognizes that our system is busted. As per this month’s Visa Bulletin, there are absolutely zero employment-based immigrant visas available for the “Third Preference” category, which is for college graduates, skilled workers and unskilled workers. Zilch. Employers who have petitions pending for such employees are in a holding pattern.

We educate foreign nationals, and then we can’t find a way to keep them here. Other countries have immigration laws, such as the EU’s “blue card,” which allow businesses to actively recruit U.S. graduates, with confidence. We have the best colleges — or so it is said — and we educate the best from all over the world, but then our system doesn’t encourage students to stay, once trained.

Short-term solutions sometimes exist. Nonimmigrant work categories can work for some employers and employees, and can be held for several years in some cases. However, sometimes the laws do not fit the circumstances, and increasingly, employers are faced with more complicated immigration challenges for their key personnel, with the challenges becoming increasingly steep when seeking permanent residence.

Our family-based immigration system is probably worse. If you are a U.S. citizen and want to petition for your brother or sister from Canada, you will have had to petition in June 1998 to have a current green card available. If you are petitioning for a brother or sister from the Philippines, you will have had to have originally applied in July 1986.

Make no mistake — Congress has shown itself to be completely dysfunctional on the immigration issue. Bills are proposed and they go absolutely nowhere. In the meantime, funding has come through for the Department of Homeland Security in recent years, and the agency has gotten busy, conducting raids, expanding detention facilities, busting employers, tripling border staffing, and most recently, operating fixed checkpoints in northern Washington counties.

It will be a real test of the Obama administration to see if it can get a comprehensive reform package passed through a dysfunctional Congress. Such a push will be a measure of political clout. Herein lies much danger and opportunity for our local business community. In light of current economic conditions, there is a real possibility that some sort of package will be proffered which has a legalization component, to bring the undocumented community out of the shadows, most likely with the required payment of some sort of penalty. However, considering current economic conditions, there is a good chance that business quotas will be diminished, filing fees raised, and borders made “tougher” (and perhaps slower).

In Washington, D.C., parlance, 2009 is a “good year” to take on a polarizing issue like immigration, because it is not an election year. 2010 is an election year, and although 2011 is not, it is too close to the next presidential election for such a debate. Many see this as the year for another shot at immigration reform. When the debate comes, many interest groups will need to coordinate and compromises will need to be made. Our local business community will want to be informed and involved, as the border and the immigration debate are inherently tied together, and ultimately influence the amount of business which is transacted in Whatcom County.


Scott Railton, an attorney at Chang & Boos, limits his practice to immigration and border issues. Email him at


Related Stories