Commentary: Is a Stealth Immigration Policy Smart?

Should trade treaties be used to regulate U.S. immigration policies? That's the question critics are asking about the two new trade pacts the Bush Administration signed this spring with Chilean Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear and Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. With little public discussion, the White House agreed to create new visa categories to allow thousands of professionals from each country to work in the U.S., on top of existing visas such as H1(b)s.

It's no small issue. The Administration hopes to use the new visa idea as a template for continuing trade talks with Australia, Morocco, and countries in Central America. At the same time, developing nations, led by India and China, are clamoring to make the new visa provisions available to all 146 nations in the World Trade Organization. The result could be a vast influx of foreign professionals from many low-wage nations, competing with American citizens for high-paying jobs.

This is a hasty way to go about making such fundamental changes to U.S. immigration policy. Indeed, as details of the new visas have begun to emerge, a backlash has been building, even among usually doctrinaire free-traders in Congress. Democrats and even some Republicans argue that the visas haven't been coordinated with existing laws on foreign workers. They make a valid point: Complex trade agreements, which increasingly affect the entire U.S. economy and require changes in U.S. laws and social policies, should not be considered in secret, or in isolation from all other legislation. "Trade agreements aren't just about tariffs but an increasingly broad range of subjects, and that requires openness and a broad bipartisan foundation," insists Representative Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), a party leader on trade issues.

More broadly, the visa spat stands as the first test of the fast-track procedures Congress established last August for handling trade agreements. Under the fast-track approach, Congress must take an up or down vote on the Chile and Singapore deals, as well as on the accompanying legislation required to implement them. As a result, it can't consider the new visas on their own merits. Instead, Congress must either accept the sweeping changes to immigration law -- or vote down the entire trade deal, which slashes tariffs on a wide range of U.S. exports to those two nations.

While the typically secretive nature of trade talks has obscured many details about the new visas, some specifics have come out. The pacts call for a new professional visa category that would allow as many as 6,800 college-educated workers to enter the U.S. each year -- 1,400 from Chile and 5,400 from Singapore. They could fill virtually any service-sector job in industries such as finance, engineering, medicine, and law. The visas also could be renewed annually with no limit, meaning they essentially would give immigrants open-ended permission to settle in the U.S.

As members of Congress learned more about the visas in recent weeks, some have begun to kick up a fuss. House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), whose committee has jurisdiction over immigration, was incensed to learn that a pact could rewrite visa law without going through his committee. He has demanded that U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick apply tighter restrictions to them before Congress votes yea or nay. "It was very clear that Republicans on the Judiciary Committee do not like this process of changing immigration law through the fast-track procedure," says J. Robert Vastine, president of the Coalition of Service Industries, an industry group that supports the two trade deals and the visa changes.

Administration officials say they are trying hard to accommodate some of the objections. "It has been a collaborative procedure," asserts one trade official. For example, she says that the Administration has agreed to require that the new visa holders be paid prevailing U.S. wages, as in the current H1(b) visa program. But other potentially divisive points aren't yet clear, such as whether all employers must prove they cannot find qualified Americans before bringing in a foreign professional. Initially, the White House shared the terms with only a few members of Congress, mostly friendly Republicans. Critics also point out that the Administration can't substantially change anything it has already agreed to with Chile and Singapore, at least not without ripping up the entire pact.

Supporters of the new visas argue that developing nations will fill many of these jobs one way or another. "If [the U.S.] can't import people, then jobs will just be exported from the U.S.," says Kiran Karnik, president of NASSCOM, India's largest software-industry association. U.S. employers also say they stand to benefit.

Even so, something is missing in the consideration of these two trade deals: a broader and more deliberative debate about all the policies affected. Although it's rarely acknowledged, trade deals today involve substantial rewriting of social and economic policy. For that reason, they're too important to be railroaded through Congress.

By Paul Magnusson

With Manjeet Kripalani in Bombay

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