Watching the furor over immigration policy during the past week, I’ve felt strangely uninvolved. I’ve heard the arguments on both sides, I’ve seen the protesters, and I’ve read the commentary. But up here in Minnesota, it’s not a burning issue, so I’ve never had to resolve the conflicting impulses that the subject raises for me.
The only thing that was clear is that the subject is far more complex than activists on either side admit. So I’ve decided it was high time I developed a position on the subject.
First I did some thinking. Then I did some research.
It seems to me that any immigration policy should recognize the following facts:
1. Every country has a right to control the flow of immigrants into it.
2. In the aftermath of 9/11, border control is a security issue, not just an economic issue.
3. The cost of the solution should not exceed the cost of the problem.
4. Barring seriously drastic measures, illegal immigration will never be eradicated. We need to manage the problem rather than trying to eradicate it.
5. The best way to fight illegal immigration is to give people incentives, both positive and negative, not to come here illegally.
6. It makes no sense to crack down on illegal immigrants without cracking down on the businesses and individuals that employ them.
THE CURRENT DEBATE
Starting from these basics, let’s address some of the common arguments used in the immigration debate.
Illegal immigrants are criminals. While technically true, it’s a gross oversimplification of the debate. For most illegal immigrants, the only crime they ever commit is crossing the border without permission. Labeling them criminals is a bit like subjecting serial jaywalkers to a “three strikes” rule.
Further, there are huge gray areas that such a simplistic approach does not handle very well. What about the teenager whose parents brought him across the border when he was an infant? He’s been raised in America and, culturally, is as American as anyone. Is he a criminal? Is justice served by deporting him back to a country he has no connection to?
Then there are the cases where illegal immigrants have children here in the States. Those children are citizens. Do we really support breaking up families by deporting the parents?
Illegal immigrants are a drain on our resources. Like any new arrival in our country, illegal immigrants use a disproportionate share of social services. And that is a cost that should really be borne by the entire nation, not the border communities that are home to the largest populations of illegals.
But that’s only part of the picture. Every wave of immigrants starts out poor. What such accounting doesn’t reflect is that by the second or third generation, most immigrant families are established and moving up the economic ladder. They bring with them the energy and desire to improve their lives – the same energy and desire to improve that has powered the United States since its inception. Focusing on the short-term costs misses the larger point. Such a selective analysis could be used to support a total ban on immigration, which clearly wouldn’t be in our best interests.
Besides, the cost of illegal immigration are likely overstated.
Mr. Borjas and Mr. Katz … found that the surge in illegal immigration reduced the wages of high school dropouts by just 3.6 percent. Across the entire labor force, the effect of illegal immigrants was zero, because the presence of uneducated immigrants actually increased the earnings of more educated workers, including high school graduates. For instance, higher-skilled workers could hire foreigners at low wages to mow their lawns and care for their children, freeing time for these workers to earn more. And businesses that exist because of the availability of cheap labor might also need to employ managers.
Illegal immigrants are lazy spongers. Fact is, other than their illegal arrival, illegal immigrants are precisely the sort of people we should want to have coming here. They don’t just decide to cross the border on a lark one day and start sucking at the teat of American welfare. These are people who see such limited opportunity in their home country — for both them and their children — that they are willing to leave everything they know in search of a better life. They pay smugglers thousands and thousands of dollars to sneak them across the border, risking death, injury, and capture – all so they can work for $3 an hour in near-slave conditions with a built-in ceiling on economic advancement, thanks to their illegal status. How desperate would you have to be before you would consider doing something like that? And isn’t this the sort of pluck exactly what we claim as the benefit of being a nation of immigrants?
We should not crack down on immigrants, illegal or otherwise, who are simply trying to make a life for themselves and their families. While illegals should be treated humanely, they are here illegally, and they do have unwanted economic effects. We should have a rational method for cracking down on illegal immigration, but we should not simply turn a blind eye or enact elaborate restrictions that make it unnecessarily difficult to identify and arrest illegals.
We should deny illegal immigrants access to public services and schools. This is just plain stupid from a public policy perspective. They’re here; we do ourselves no favors by preventing them from getting an education or other kinds of help. Cutting them off would have the effect of turning them into criminals in the full sense of the word, forced to steal and defraud in order to survive. Cutting them off from public health services would just increase our overall health bill in the end. Let’s not cut off our nose to spite our face.
Americans don’t want the jobs that illegal immigrants do. This isn’t provably true; there will always be exceptions, and even if it is true, the reason may be less the work involved than the pay rate. A more accurate assessment might be that without the cheap labor of illegals, those jobs wouldn’t be in this country in the first place. But either way, it seems clear that illegal immigration does affect the job and earning prospects of American workers at the bottom of the education ladder.
America can’t handle too many immigrants at once. In a theoretical sense, this is true; if one million illegal Mexican immigrants suddenly descended on Luxembourg, for instance, it would become a Mexican-majority country overnight. But the United States has 300 million people; we’re not so easily overwhelmed. With the INS estimating there are only about nine million illegal immigrants in the United States as of 2005, the “we can’t handle it” argument starts to look very weak. Looking at history, it gets even weaker. Between 1905 and 1914, an average of one million people a year immigrated to this country — at a time when the population of the United States was about 90 million. Somehow we absorbed that. To achieve the same relative disruption today, we’d have to be letting in 3.3 million immigrants a year. We’re not even close to that. In 2004, we admitted fewer than one million legal immigrants. Add to that the INS estimate of 500,000 illegal immigrants a year, and it’s clear we’re not even close to reaching the limits of our absorption rate — whatever that rate might be.
(For a wealth of information on immigration, check out Homeland Security’s 2004 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. It’s a pdf; on page 11 is a chart showing immigration by year going back to 1820).
The problem with illegal immigrants, then, is not the cost, nor the number of immigrants, nor the immigrants themselves. It’s that it is uncontrolled, which makes establishing policy difficult and poses a security risk.
The value of closing that security hole is subjective, but the relatively small objective costs of illegal immigration suggest that spending huge buckets of money to stop it just doesn’t pass the cost-benefit test. Any solution should either be cost-effective by itself or have other benefits that justify the expense.
We need a comprehensive approach, not piecemeal solutions. Any attempt to address the immigration problem should include stricter enforcement in this country coupled with incentives to keep people from wanting to come here illegally in the first place.
1. Manage the demand side. Crack down on employers as well as their illegal employees, to reduce the demand side of the illegal labor problem. Fines alone won’t do it; that just becomes a cost of doing business. If a business is a chronic employer of illegal workers, there should be jail terms for company executives.
We don’t even come close to doing this now:
The number of federal immigration agents who focus on work-site enforcement plunged to 65 nationwide in 2004, from 240 in 1999, according to the Government Accountability Office. Moreover, the government reduced the number of notices of intent to fine employers who hired illegal immigrants to just 3 in 2004 from 417 in 1999.
Sixty-five agents nationwide? That’s the first mistake.
We may want to tread carefully in this area because, as I noted above, some of these industries only exist because of the cheap labor of illegals. But if we’re going to arrest the workers, we should arrest the employers as well — be they a corporation or a private individual with an illegal gardener. A few high-profile examples might have a big deterrent effect — and would certainly reveal whether we as a country have the stomach for such tactics. If we don’t, we need to adjust our strategy to that reality.
2. Work with the Mexican government to increase economic opportunity in Mexico. This may seem counter to our national economic interests — helping set up Mexican workers to compete against us in the global market — but the best way to persuade people to stay home is to give them some reason to do so. Assuming cultural and family ties are important, most people would prefer to build a life in Mexico than in the United States. Even slight improvements in economic opportunity in Mexico should have an impact on the flow of illegal immigrants.
3. Increase our legal immigrant quota. It’s way too low anyway. And by giving people a reasonable chance of being able to immigrate legally, we reduce their incentive to immigrate illegally in the meantime. I’d consider doubling the quota to two million a year, with half of it earmarked for Mexico.
4. Implement selective amnesty programs. Have ways to help illegal immigrants become citizens — if they go home first. Provide amnesty to children who were raised here and are substantially American, perhaps with requirements that they graduate from high school and hold a steady job. A general amnesty is a bad idea, but allow humane exceptions to a general deportation rule.
5. Border security. If we can reduce the flow of illegal immigrants, that makes it easier to monitor our borders for security risks. Building a fence isn’t an answer; it would be hugely expensive and easily circumvented. The only way we get a reasonable chance of catching infiltrating terrorists is if they can’t hide in a flood of illegal immigrants. So while we should increase our patrol efforts, improved border security will really be a side effect of the other strategies listed above.
6. Sharing the costs. The federal government should provide aid to border cities and states to help shoulder the cost of providing services to illegal aliens.
7. Education assistance for American workers. This is totally off the cuff, but the study I cite above indicates that the only workers adversely affected by illegal immigration are high school dropouts. Given that, we could lessen the impact by moving at least some of those workers up the educational and professional ladder so they no longer have to compete with low-wage illegals.
Adopting just some of these proposals would be a mistake; they’re a package deal. They may not be as emotionally satisfying as walling off our southern border, but it would be a whole lot cheaper and far more practical. The Great Wall didn’t work for China; it won’t work for us.
As long as America is a land of opportunity, we will have people trying to get into the country any way they can. A rational, humane policy that seeks to manage rather than stop that flow will pay off in both the economic and security arenas — and perhaps the political and diplomatic as well.