Prominent Tea Party activist calls for US immigration reform

Sal Russo, a high-profile Tea Party activist, has called on the US Congress to 'fix' the US's immigration system. Mr Russo wrote an opinion piece for the Washington political newspaper Roll Call in which he called for a complete overhaul of the US's 'broken' system.

The Tea Party is a radical, right-wing, grassroots movement. It is not a homogenous movement and has no leaders or structure. Because it is a loose grouping with no manifesto, it cannot truly even be said to have any policies; Tea Party activists are united by an opposition to 'big government' and taxes.

Polling shows that most people who identify themselves as Tea Party sympathisers are also opposed to immigration, particularly to the granting of permanent resident status to illegal immigrants.

Tea Party Express

Mr Russo is a co-founder of a Tea Party-supporting group called Tea Party Express. He is also its chief strategist. In his Roll Call article he said that the US immigration should be reformed and that 'what is good for America should be the sole criteria for immigration reform'.

In his piece, published on 14th May 2014, Mr Russo called for more employment-based immigration to the US to help US businesses find 'the talent we need to fill the jobs'.

He said 'Our economy has long outgrown the visa programs we have now. In high-skilled industries such as engineering and medicine, we do not have the talent we need to fill the jobs. These industries are the fastest growing in the country and we depend on them for job creation and economic growth.

Shortage of 235,000 jobs in STEM subjects

'But according to the Partnership for a New American Economy, we face a shortage of more than 235,000 jobs in science, technology, engineering and math fields by 2018'.

He added that US farmers are unable to employ migrant labourers because of visa restrictions.

He said 'Doing nothing now means hurting businesses just as we are coming out of the Great Recession'.

Visa for entrepreneurs

Mr Russo called for the creation of a visa for entrepreneurs. He said that 'other countries understand that entrepreneurs are an economic necessity. While we actively turn [them] away'.

(In fact, the US already has some visas suitable for entrepreneurs. Notably the E-1 Treaty Trader and E-2 Treaty Investor visas though these are only available for citizens of countries with which the US has a reciprocal treaty and the EB-5 investor visa)

Mr Russo went on to say that the US should issue more visas to employment-based applicants. He said that only 6% of foreign nationals issued with US permanent resident visas each year receive their visas in an 'employment based' category and that this percentage should be increased.

Foreign graduates should be allowed to stay

He also said that the US should allow foreign graduates of US universities to stay and work rather than 'serving competing nations with the talented foreign-born graduates who study here and then get sent back home to drive their economies instead of ours'.

Most surprisingly of all, Mr Russo said that 'the 11 million people who are here illegally [should] obey the law, pay taxes and come out of the shadows'. This seems to be a call for the US Congress to pass a law that would enable illegal immigrants to apply for permanent residence in the US.

This is a very surprising thing for a Tea Party sympathiser to say, let alone for a Tea Party 'leader'. It is surprising because US Congressmen and women who claim to sympathise with Tea Party goals are generally vehement opponents of any proposed law which would allow illegal residents to stay legally in the US.

Tea Party members oppose amnesty

On the whole, Tea Party Republicans say that allowing illegal residents to stay would be rewarding criminality and would encourage further illegal immigration. They also say that it would disadvantage potential immigrants who apply legally and are waiting for their applications to be processed. This may increase the processing times for such applicants.

Last year, the US Senate passed The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act 2013 which would have radically reformed the US immigration system.

Among other changes, the bill would

  • Increase the annual number of H-1B temporary skilled work visas from 85,000 to over 150,000. This figure could rise above 200,000 if demand was high
  • Allow graduates from US universities with higher degrees to apply for permanent resident visas (or 'green cards' as they are known'
  • Increase spending on border security by $4.5bn over the next four years

Pathway to citizenship

But the most controversial change was a clause which would have created 'a pathway to citizenship' for illegal residents.

The Republican speaker of the other House of Congress, the House of Representatives, has not allowed a vote on the bill because he believes that Tea Party-backed Representatives might vote against it because of the 'pathway to citizenship' thereby splitting the party.

Mr Russo's intervention is therefore rather surprising and, potentially, good news for immigration reform.

11.5m illegal residents

There are currently believed to be 11.5m people living in the US illegally. 80% of them are of Hispanic descent and come from Mexico and other countries in Latin America. The issue of what to do about them has become an issue which divides the parties.

During the 2012 Presidential election campaign, President Obama promised to introduce legislation to regularise the status of illegal immigrants if re-elected. His Republican challenger, Mitt Romney said that, if he were to be elected President, he would, instead, introduce 'self-deportation' policies.

'Self-deportation' involves making life so difficult for illegal residents of the US that they choose to leave the country.

Romney 'appeased Tea Party'

At the time, US political commentators said that Mr Romney was forced to espouse 'self-deportation' policies in order to attract the support of Tea Party sympathisers for his presidential candidacy.

Mr Russo's suggestion that illegal residents should be given an opportunity to regularise their immigration status is therefore a surprise.

He was keen to stress that he was not in favour of an 'unbridled amnesty' for illegal residents. He said 'We have to get them right by the law in exchange for legal status, but not unbridled amnesty.

Background checks, learn English

'This should include penalties, background checks to root out criminals, and the requirement that they learn English, understand the Constitution and be committed to our basic freedoms. We must ensure there is no special pathway to citizenship that puts them in front of people who waited in line'.

These provisions are all contained within the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act. We will keep you informed of developments.

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